Performing Colic Surgery on Zebra: Virginia Tech Equine Vets Earn their Stripes

Jennifer Brown, DVM, Dipl. ACVS, clinical assistant professor in emergency care and equine surgery at Virginia Tech's Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center, recently performed colic surgery on a 2-year-old male Grevy's zebra named Dante at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park onsite veterinary hospital in the District of Columbia.

The zoo's veterinarians were first alerted to a problem by Dante's keepers who contacted them on the morning of Sunday, Aug. 26.

"Any time that one of these animals is sick, it is pretty challenging because, as prey animals, they tend to hide pain," said Carlos Sanchez, DVM, associate veterinarian at the National Zoo. "Dante's keepers said that he seemed really depressed. His coat was darker on one side suggesting that he had been lying down for an extended period of time during the night and he was just not acting like himself."

A dart was used to anesthetize the zebra and a diagnostic examination for colic was performed.

"The main difference between zebras and domestic horses is that you can't approach zebras without sedating or anesthetizing them because they are dangerous animals that can hurt you pretty bad," said Sanchez. "We have to anesthetize them even to get a blood sample or heart rate, and, in this case, to perform a colic exam."

Mineral oil was administered through a nasogastric tube and the zebra was given intravenous fluids through a catheter placed on his jugular vein in order to correct dehydration and soften blockages in the intestines that are a common cause of colic.

"We expected that the mineral oil and other treatments would do the job," said Sanchez. "Dante was monitored closely for the remainder of the day and looked better but not as good as we would have expected, so we started to consider surgical treatments. On Monday, we decided to contact the Equine Medical Center's team about helping with the surgery since they specialize in treating this type of condition."

According to zoo officials, the Smithsonian's veterinary staff is occasionally supplemented with outside experts.

"We have a really talented, multi-faceted staff at the zoo and one of the great things about them is that they have a network of experts to call upon," said John Gibbons, spokesperson for the National Zoo. "The expertise that we have here is enhanced through the use of outside specialists, like the equine medical center's doctors, when needed."

When Brown received the call from Suzan Murray, DVM, Dipl. ACZM, chief veterinarian at National Zoo, she knew that the situation was dire.

"Dante was experiencing moderate colic," said Brown. "Systemically he was stable but it was a critical situation."

As a condition that frequently afflicts horses, colic is one of the Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center's most commonly treated emergencies, with almost 250 such cases seen at the center from July 2005 to June 2006.

Zebras have digestive systems that are also susceptible to the disease.

"Although our faculty members primarily treat domesticated horses, they are fully equipped to treat all members of the Equidae family," said Nat White, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVS, Jean Ellen Shehan Professor and director of the Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center. "We treat donkeys and mules and the occasional exotic species."

Like a horse, a zebra's digestive system consists of intestines that stretch from eleven to twelve times its body length, all of which can be easily affected by external factors including changes in diet or exercise. For Brown, who has performed hundreds of colic surgeries on horses, having a patient with stripes was highly unusual but technically very similar.

"Once they covered his stripes up with my drape, I couldn't tell the difference between him and a horse," said Brown. "They have almost the same gastrointestinal tract although colic is fairly uncommon among zebras."


Zebra prepared for colic surgery

National Zoological Park veterinary technician Lisa Ware prepares Dante for colic surgery.

A medical team including Brown, surgery resident Sam Hart, licensed veterinary technician Tina Cooman, and fourth year veterinary student Samantha Baglin, traveled from Leesburg to the zoo in Washington to conduct the surgery. National Zoo staff attending Dante's procedure included Murray, Sanchez, Luis Padilla, DVM, associate veterinarian; Katherine Hope, DVM, zoo medicine resident; Lisa Ware, veterinary technician; and Kim Williams, licensed veterinary technician.

"We brought down some of our equipment because we didn't know what they would have but the zoo's hospital was very well equipped for this," said Brown.

The 605-pound zebra had been sedated by the zoo's veterinarians before the Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center's medical team arrived.

"Another difference between domestic and non-domestic equids is anesthesia," said Sanchez. "We use ultra-potent narcotics on zebras, the same ones used on rhinoceroses and elephants, because the animals are so hard to anesthetize."

During the 90-minute procedure, Brown performed an exploratory laparotomy in order to confirm the colic diagnosis. She found a twist of the large colon. The twist was corrected and there was not any significant damage to the intestines.

Brown said she was pleased with the outcome of the procedure and left the determination of a post-treatment regimen to the zoo's veterinarians who specialize in caring for wild animals.

Following the surgery, Dante was kept at the zoo's hospital in a padded stall, treated with antibiotics and pain medication, and gradually reintroduced to a normal diet. He was discharged approximately 10 days after the surgery.

"We didn't have the luxury of checking the incisions in person once he was released from the hospital, but we took pictures with a zoom lens camera and could see that they healed well," said Sanchez.

It has been two months since Dante was treated for colic and zoo officials report that, as part of the African Savannah Exhibit, he is once again happily greeting the more than two million visitors who flock to the park each year. Along with Gumu, a 4-year-old Grevy's zebra stallion, Dante is part of a conservation effort managed by Species Survival Plans (SSPs), a cooperative breeding and conservation program for selected species in zoos and aquariums in North America. The National Zoo participates in the Grevy's Zebra SSP by housing juvenile stallions until they are sexually mature at approximately 4 to 5 years of age. They are then sent to accredited organizations in North America that actively breed this species.

"Dante is a young zebra and very healthy," said Sanchez. "He handled the surgery really well. The outcome was wonderful and we were grateful that everything went as planned."

For Brown, working with the zoo's veterinarians to cure Dante's colic was a gratifying experience.

"It felt good to be able to help and it was fun to do something different," said Brown. "I certainly would go again if they needed me."

Virginia Tech's Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center is a premier full-service equine hospital located in Leesburg, Va., that offers advanced specialty care, 24-hour emergency treatment, and diagnostic services for all ages and breeds of horses. One of three campuses that comprise the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, the center's team of equine specialists is committed to providing exceptional treatment to patients, superior service to clients, and cutting-edge research to the equine industry.

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