A Knee Makeover for Sweet Otter

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Does Sweet Otter deserve her name?

Does Sweet Otter deserve her name?

You may have noticed that the San Diego Zoo’s little otter celebrity had been missing from her exhibit along Center Street for a while. Well, back in July, 2013, keepers noticed the female Cape clawless otter, Sweet Otter, was favoring her right rear leg. Veterinarians were notified, observations were made, and pain medicine was provided. This hands-off approach didn’t seem to do the trick, since Sweet Otter’s lameness persisted. An anesthetic examination was performed, which included radiographs and blood work, with no obvious discoveries. She was returned to her exhibit, urine and fecal samples were submitted, and numerous medications were prescribed. The hope was that this type of noninvasive treatment would be all she needed to recover. But that was not the case, and an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) was scheduled for Sweet Otter in September.

How does one perform an MRI on an otter? It involves much planning, phone calls, emails, and preparation. When the big day arrived, her keeper brought Sweet Otter to the Zoo’s Jennings Center for Zoological Medicine in a crate, which was then loaded into one of our vehicles. A veterinarian, vet technician, and hospital keeper then drove our special patient to an off-site animal hospital. If you’ve ever had an MRI, you know that you DON’T MOVE while you are slid into a very small tube and inundated with noisy, sporadic pops and clicks. That is almost impossible for anyone, especially an otter! Hence, Sweet Otter was anesthetized, and because she was such a perfectly placid patient, the MRI was able to pick up her problem almost immediately, and surgery was performed.

What was discovered was a 90 percent tear of her right cranial cruciate ligament. A tibial plateau leveling osteotomy was performed to stabilize the stifle, or knee, joint with a bone plate and screws, which were added to eliminate the need for the cranial cruciate ligament and restore pain-free, normal function. In short, our Sweet Otter got a sweet knee makeover!

The doctor’s orders were to put her on an eight-week exercise restriction, with daily leg massages, leash-walking, and passive range of motion exercises. What?! We had been given the generic recovery instruction form for a dog. We had some fun with that, since obviously it couldn’t be applied to an otter, and Sweet Otter isn’t any old otter, either. She got her name because when she came to us in 2003, she was the opposite of sweet: a full-grown, big and sassy Cape clawless otter (averaging 24 to 28 pounds or 11 to 13 kilograms). She has been entertaining guests and keeping keepers on their toes ever since!

So here we were taking care of our long-term recovery case, Sweet Otter, who was actually being…sweet. Having worked with this animal long ago when I was one of her keepers, I knew how Sweet Otter could be, and I was a little hesitant to share the same space with her. You see, part of her recovery was to house her at the Zoo hospital to have more control over her activity level. Since she was on exercise restriction, she was initially kept in a small room with only a nest box, a small water bowl, and a food pan—nothing to climb on, in, or over, and no pool access in order to keep her surgery site dry.

As soon as she returned from her knee surgery, we noticed an immediate improvement. Though she stayed curled up in her nest box a lot of the time, thanks to our surveillance cameras we were able to monitor her movements from a distance. She still had a “hitch in her giddy-up” but didn’t seem to be uncomfortable anymore, though she was still choosing to walk on three legs, with her back end skipping behind the front end. Muscle-memory was causing her to hold up her leg when on the move, and that once Sweet Otter realized it was now a functioning limb, she would start using it again. Aren’t animals amazingly adaptable?

We hospital keepers had to go in to the same space with this animal to service or clean and feed. This plan worked well while Sweet Otter was still sleeping most of the day, but once she started feeling better, things changed quickly, and we had to go to Plan B. We let Sweet Otter go in to the adjacent outside room during cleaning. The problem was that as soon as we opened the door to “a whole new world,” Sweet Otter didn’t want anything to do with it. We actually tried keeping the access door to the new room open most of one day, with some treats outside. Even with fresh air and food as motivation, it was still too scary for our patient. So we contained her in the nest box during cleaning, Plan C. This worked well until Sweet Otter got frustrated and started opening the door while we were in her room. Plan D: latches were added to her nest box so she couldn’t open her crate door and chase us around during servicing. (She was the only one who enjoyed that game!)

We had finally found a routine that worked for us. The better Sweet Otter felt, the more food motivated she became. Instead of running back to her safe nest box every time we came, she finally started staying out to eat. It greatly helped once the surgery site was healed enough that our otter patient could finally have a pool. By mid-October, almost one month to the day from her surgery, we happily filled a plastic baby pool with water. We expected her to run over and dive in, but Sweet Otter is a very cautious otter and does things on her own time when, and only when, she is ready. So she stood in her doorway and stared at this new addition—for a few days!

Once we started adding food to her pool, she changed her mind. But since her right rear leg was still weak and on the mend, her left rear leg had to do most of the work to propel her over the lip of the baby pool. This precious limb, though healthy, wasn’t always up for the challenge, so in the beginning it wasn’t uncommon to see the front part of an otter in the water and the back part resting on or hanging over the pool’s edge! It took some effort to get her entire body into that little pool, but Sweet Otter was improving by the day. We observed a steady increase in appetite and activity and a great improvement in her overall demeanor. She was no longer difficult to shift from one room to another. Servicing her took less than half the time it did when she first arrived. She would run, splash, and chase her live prey items (goldfish and crawdads) immediately after they were dropped in her pool. She was so fast, they never saw her coming!

Sweet Otter’s recovery was textbook, and our veterinarians and specialists were very impressed with her progress and excellent use of her “new-and-improved” limb. In mid-November, her surgical site was rechecked. The doctor was pleased with the current range of motion in her right stifle joint and stated the healing was progressing well. Radiographs showed that four additional weeks of healing were still needed. After that, if all appeared normal, Sweet Otter could be released to her exhibit with no restrictions! I am happy to report that on a chilly, gray morning in mid-December, Sweet Otter returned to her exhibit. Three months to the day of arriving at the Zoo hospital, our special otter patient had finally “left the building.” We will miss seeing her sweet face every day, begging for food and asking us what we’re doing, but it is nice to see this “sweet” success story back on exhibit.

Come by for a visit and welcome Sweet Otter back home!

Kirstin Clapham is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Koala Boys: Best Buds.