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The pioneering surgery could help penguins who have lost their sight due to old age
News, Tech

Penguin undergoes cataract surgery in US

20/03/2017
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A US veterinary college has successfully performed pioneering cataract surgery that could improve the quality of life for senior penguins.

The operation took place at the Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences Small Animal Hospital and involved a chinstrap penguin from the Moody Gardens educational amusement park at Galveston Island, Texas.

Texas A&M veterinary ophthalmologists screened 30 Moody Gardens penguins, identifying six that could benefit from cataract surgery. The first to undergo the surgery was a chinstrap penguin nearing the age of 30 who was believed to have lost its sight due to old age.

“Since penguins live longer in captivity, they are more prone to develop cataracts,” Dr Erin Scott, one of the ophthalmologists, said.

Due to the fact that penguins have blood vessels in their legs and wings that minimise heat loss in cold temperatures, one of the main challenges of the operation was preventing the penguin from overheating, which meant maintaining an environmental temperature of 8–15 degrees Celsius.

To achieve this, the penguin was transported to the hospital in an air-conditioned truck and the operation was performed in a room with fans placed strategically to blow cold air rising from buckets filled with ice cubes.

The successful operation was completed after 45 minutes and the penguin was able to return to Moody Gardens the following morning. Another penguin that had accompanied the first penguin, however, was found to be inoperable due to a detached retina that had rendered him permanently blind.

The four other Moody Gardens penguins identified as candidates during screening will likely undergo the same surgery in the coming months, and Dr Sharman Hoppes, a Texas A&M zoological veterinarian and leader of the operation, said the hospital’s recent success could lead to cataract operations being a regular procedure for elderly penguins in the future.

“Cataract surgery is the one surgery I would do for any animal at any age because it improves their life so much,” Dr Hoppes said. “To have an animal that’s lost its vision and have their vision back is huge. These are very social animals, and when they’ve lost their vision they become more isolated and less social. Getting their vision back is going to be key in getting them back into a social network with their other penguins.”

It was said the hospital would now focus on fine-tuning the operation’s processes for the remaining penguins and on monitoring their recovery once reintroduced to their flock.

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