Geriatric Care: Creating a Life Worth Living

by | Apr 28, 2018 | At the Zoo | 1 comment

This article was originally published in the Winter 2018 Wild Times Newsletter.
Photo Credit Wade Krasnow

Age Is Not A Disease

One of the benefits of modern veterinary care and medicine; higher quality nutrition, training and enrichment; and natural habitat designs is zoo residents are living richer and longer lives. In fact, many animals soar past their expected life span, creating large populations of geriatric animals.

Modern zoos worldwide are creating programs dedicated to the assessment and care of their senior residents. A geriatric animal – defined as having lived 75 per cent of what their estimated life span would be in the wild – often experiences degenerative issues as do humans. Approximately one quarter of our 358 Edmonton Valley Zoo animals is considered to be geriatric.

Animal Team Leader Wade Krasnow attended the first ever symposium on senior animal care. Caring for Elderly Zoo Animals, hosted by the San Francisco Zoo, where it was emphasized that while “age is not a disease,” aging animals have unique physical and emotional needs, as well as preferences that must be addressed.

“We have as much responsibility to care for our elderly animals as we do our younger ones,” states Krasnow. “Some of these animals have been with us 10 to 15 years, or longer – we think of them as family – each with their own unique personality.”

Geriatric Care Program

While the zoo follows standards of care for each species, the Geriatric Care Program tailors a health plan to meet the needs of each individual.

“This is a comprehensive program that addresses diet, vet care, seasonal housing, enrichment, and training,’’ shares Krasnow. “We look at what the animal needs for a life worth living, so each senior lives the best possible life throughout its later years.”

Quality Of Life Assessments

A Quality of Life Assessment form allows zoo staff to evaluate, from a scale of 0-10, an animal’s physical condition, behaviour, mobility, appetite, temperament, and the number of good days it has versus bad. If the animal is doing well, staff may assess it once a month; if it is nearing the end, it can be daily.

Training is a vital part of our zoo’s husbandry. It allows keepers to work closely with the animals and quickly spot changes in body condition and/or behaviours. This is especially beneficial for seniors as changes may be subtle and gradual.

End Of Life Decisions

The end of life decision is made when the quality of life assessment score shows a pattern of falling below a threshold number. The veterinarian and zookeeper staff convene to determine whether euthanasia or a natural death is best for the animal. The decision is always based on what is best for the animal.

When an animal does pass, it can affect other animals in the herd or troop, as well as grieving zoo staff and members of the public. Regular visitors routinely check on their favourite animals and want to know what happened if they are missing. Zoo staff are always eager to share information about our animals.

This photo (above) of Sebastian, our Western Caucasian tur, and zookeeper Trevor, was taken in January. Sebastian was nearing 14, a ripe old age for a species that averages 10 to 12 years. Several steps were taken as age crept up to ensure Sebastian was as healthy and comfortable as possible: compression horse wraps were used on his front legs to reduce edema and promote blood flow; he wore a horse blanket for warmth and to discourage magpies from picking at his back; a heater and extra bedding were placed in his barn; and a special diet of crushed alpha cubes made it easier for him to chew the food for maximum nutrition and digestion.

Shortly before this was published, the decision was made to humanely euthanize Sebastian. He was a valued member of the zoo family and enjoyed a long, happy life. Sebastian is fondly remembered.