Real life Happy Feet:

Orthotic boots improve life for arthritic penguin

Enrique, a geriatric southern rockhopper penguin, saw his life and comfort vastly improve when he received custom orthotic boots. Photos courtesy Kimberly Washington
Enrique, a geriatric southern rockhopper penguin, saw his life and comfort vastly improve when he received custom orthotic boots.
Photos courtesy Kimberly Washington

Arthritis is more than just a human health issue. It can afflict a wide range of animals—even penguins. So, when Enrique, a geriatric southern rockhopper penguin at the Saint Louis Zoo, started having mobility issues due to arthritis in his ankles, the zoo’s veterinary team immediately got to work on a long-term solution.

The answer: A specially made pair of form-fitting neoprene boots to provide Enrique with both support and traction.

Meet Enrique

Enrique joined the Saint Louis Zoo from another facility six years ago, and at 30, is among the oldest of the zoo’s 19-member flock. In the wild, rockhoppers typically live around 10 years.

According to staff veterinarian Jimmy Johnson, DVM, MS, CertAqV, DACZM, Enrique’s keepers noticed he was moving a little slower, was not climbing as high on the rocks in his habitat, and had developed calluses on the bottom of his feet from an altered gait.

“The keepers have a keen eye, and know immediately when something is wrong with one of the animals, which is really helpful in detecting an issue early so we can intervene faster,” Dr. Johnson explains. “We did a full exam and took some X-rays to see what his joints looked like, and the arthritis was pretty severe, which is not unexpected in a geriatric animal.”

The veterinary team tried a variety of treatments, including nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs for pain, saltwater foot baths, and topical creams to address the calluses on Enrique’s feet. “These resulted in a little bit of improvement but didn’t seem the most viable long-term because the cream would wash away every time Enrique went in the water,” Johnson says. “It was also very time-consuming for both Enrique and the staff. So, we started thinking outside the box.”

Johnson conceived a type of boot to give Enrique sufficient ankle support while also cushioning the bottoms of his feet, and reached out to Thera-Paw, a company traditionally known for rehabilitative and assistive products for dogs and cats, to create a custom-made prototype.

Enrique could not travel to Thera-Paw’s facilities in Lebanon, N.J., so everything had to be done long-distance. The penguin’s keepers made tracings of his feet, and provided high-resolution photos and videos so the technicians at Thera-Paw would have as much information about Enrique and his medical condition as possible.

Interestingly, Enrique is not the first penguin to receive an orthotic from Thera-Paw, says president and CEO Ilaria Borghese. “We’ve had a number of zoos contact us,” she notes. “We’ve made boots for penguins, flamingos, and black-neck swans, all with different issues. But Enrique was quite special, and the Saint Louis Zoo has been wonderful to work with. Enrique’s anatomy was a little bit of a learning curve, but the zoo gave us the measurements we needed, and detailed the exact purpose of the boots and how they should function, which helped us greatly in creating the best solution for Enrique. ”

There was much to consider, Borghese says. Foremost, Enrique’s boots had to be comfortable enough to be worn all day and allow him to swim, but also provide traction when he climbed the slippery rocks in his habitat.

Getting creative

Sometimes Borghese has to be inventive when making a custom orthotic for an animal, and Enrique’s boots were no different. For example, the nonslip rubber coating on the bottom of his boots is from a pair of gardening gloves. “I was gardening one weekend and I realized the rubber coating on my gloves was perfect for Enrique’s use,” Borghese says. “I went to the store and bought an economy package of garden gloves and we’ve been using them as the base of our boots for penguins.”

Enrique’s shoes were made in black to match his feet, but in this photo the orange nonslip rubber soles—made from gardening gloves—are visible.
Enrique’s shoes were made in black to match his feet, but in this photo the orange nonslip rubber soles—made from gardening gloves—are visible.

Borghese adds the biggest challenge in making Enrique’s boots was figuring out how to fit his webbed feet into the devices while ensuring they were secure enough so he could swim without them coming off.

“Penguins have webbed feet that can be folded so they fit into a narrow opening, but Enrique has such advanced arthritis that his digits can’t be folded enough to slip his feet into the boots,” Borghese says. “We designed the boots so they open in the back. Enrique’s foot can be appropriately placed inside the boot, then the boot is closed around his foot. It allows for a very wide berth for his foot so it isn’t too painful when we insert it, but secure enough for him to travel through different types of environments, such as climbing on rocks and swimming in water.”

When the big day came, Johnson and Enrique’s keepers were not certain how he would react to the boots, though he had been compliant with the other treatments. “We put the boots on him and set him down, and he didn’t seem to mind at all,” Johnson says. “He took to them right away, walking around, and doing his penguin business. Then we introduced him back to the habitat. The keepers put them on for short periods initially, then for longer periods until it was a full morning-to-evening day.”

As a result of the boots, Enrique’s quality of life has noticeably improved, Johnson adds. He’s much more energetic when coming out for food, swimming comfortably, and climbing higher on the rocks.

“We’ve really noticed a dramatic change in his activity and ability to live a normal penguin life since we introduced the boots,” Johnson says. “They are now part of his daily routine.”

Enrique’s boots are black so they blend in with his environment, though Borghese notes with a laugh they are a little more noticeable now because the rubber soles are bright orange—the only color of gardening gloves she could find when she last went shopping. Depending on Enrique’s activity level, each pair should last approximately six to 12 months before needing to be replaced.

“As a veterinarian, it’s very rewarding to develop a treatment option that really helps an animal, but I think one of the results that has been most rewarding in Enrique’s case is the collaboration we had among the veterinarians and animal care professionals to really think outside the box and innovate,” Johnson says. “I would say that’s not unique to Enrique’s case—it happens every day at the Saint Louis Zoo and at accredited zoos around the country. We’re constantly learning and innovating, and we’re very happy Enrique has had a positive outcome.”


Much of Enrique’s 30-years-old longevity can be attributed to the daily care he receives at the Saint Louis Zoo, reports staff veterinarian Jimmy Johnson, DVM, MS, CertAqV, DACZM.

“Due to the expert husbandry and veterinary care, as well as nutrition and housing and social dynamics, I believe the care we provide at the zoo is very holistic and allows animals like Enrique to live well beyond their expected lifespans in the wild,” Dr. Johnson says. “The keepers are experts in the care and biology of the penguins, and can pick up on the earliest signs that something may be off.”

Much of the healthcare received by Enrique and all of the other animals at the Saint Louis Zoo is preventive, spotting issues before they turn serious. “For the penguin population, preventive care includes taking X-rays to ensure they are looking good inside, and doing routine scheduled preventive health exams to detect and treat problems early,” Johnson explains. “That includes vaccinations, routine blood draws, and more.”

Arthritis, which is Enrique’s most serious health issue, is relatively common in older animals in general, Johnson adds. “When detected, the keepers keep close track to make sure they are able to live their lives to the fullest,” he notes. “When the problem becomes more acute, they can call the veterinary department and we’ll formulate a treatment plan.”

Don Vaughan is an award-winning writer who frequently writes about veterinary-related topics.

Post a Comment