15 November 2013

Calgary Zoo looks to protect penguins from aspergillosis

On 10 November, staff at the Calgary Zoo made the difficult decision to euthanise a 14-year-old male gentoo penguin Houdini after he had been sick for almost a month.

The results of a necropsy confirmed severe aspergillosis – a fungal infection that affects the respiratory system. It is one of the most common causes of death in captive penguins and has been recorded in wild penguins. 

Aspergillosis occurs in birds both indoors and outdoors and, as most zoos find, can come and go with many penguins. Aspergillus spores can be found everywhere in the environment. Penguins are among several birds that are extremely sensitive to acquiring the infection, especially when the spore levels become concentrated or the birds' immune systems are depressed (such as when they moult).

“We are concerned that the summer flood has increased some of our risk factors as the high levels of dampness create an environment that allows the fungus to proliferate,” said Dr Sandie Black, Head of Veterinary Services.

“We have taken additional measures that include air quality testing for presence of spores, increasing the frequency of air filter changes and enhancing our already stringent husbandry practises, as in our cleaning of the exhibit. As a precaution, all penguins have been proactively treated for aspergillosis, as they were in the days immediately following the flood in June.”

“One possibility we are exploring is that we may have an Aspergillus species that is resistant to the common antifungal drugs used to treat the disease.”

“Some of our penguins are not responding to current therapy as we would expect. Further testing is underway to determine if this is the case. In addition, we are in discussions with other penguin specialists around the world to learn from their experiences, and may invite other experts to review our facilities and risk factors.”

Humboldt penguin Eduardo and king penguin Asa, two of the zoo's other penguins, also died from aspergillosis this year.

Black noted that there is minimal risk to people.

“The fungal spores are normally present in varying numbers in most environments. Infected penguins do not increase the environmental load of these spores in any way that would be of risk to healthy individuals."

Gentoo penguin Houdini succumbs to aspergillosis [media release], 12 November 2013, Calgary Zoo

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