Veterinary Hospital & Labs

Shedd’s on-site animal hospital means that veterinary care is just steps away from any one of our 32,000 animals. Happily, because of our commitment to preventive healthcare, most visits with the doctors are regular checkups.

Doctors in the house
Shedd’s three veterinarians and staff of veterinary technicians can be thought of as the equivalent of 1,500 specialists — one for each species in the animal collection. Even the most closely related species can have significantly different physiologies — and different responses to medications and treatments.

Compared with the body of medical knowledge about domestic animals, and even terrestrial zoo animals, aquatic animal medicine is a new frontier in veterinary science. Shedd’s medical team, working closely with the animal care experts, have pioneered cancer chemotherapy in several types of fishes, MRI for high-voltage electric eels, dentistry for pufferfish, prenatal care of beluga whales, neonatal care for sea otters, assist feeding of sea stars and the growing veterinary specialty of geriatric care for a host of long-lived aquarium residents.

Shedd’s medical experts are literally writing the book on the care of many species through scientific publications that reach the international community of veterinarians and biologists to advance the field of aquatic medicine.   

Prevention is the best medicine
The aquarists and trainers practice preventive care every day as they monitor the health and behavior of the animals, alert for even slight changes so that the veterinarians can diagnose and treat any problems as early as possible.

Of course, the animal health team’s goal is to keep problems from occurring in the first place. Preventive care for the animals isn’t that different from the care people receive: regular physical exams, as well as dental, eye and prenatal exams where applicable, for every animal group, from the corals and jellies to the belugas and dolphins. These regular checkups allow the vets to collect baseline data for all the animals in our care. In addition, Shedd runs nearly 2,500 diagnostic tests, like routine blood panels and examinations of stool samples, every year to make sure the animals remain in top health.

Healthcare center in the heart of the aquarium
Only a few aquariums have full-scale animal hospitals, and Shedd’s animal healthcare center is one of the largest in the country. The A. Watson Armour III Center for Aquatic Animal Health and Welfare includes a full-service hospital with high-tech equipment familiar to any practitioner of human medicine, plus specialized veterinary features that would astonish him or her, supported by the environmental quality lab. The complex occupies 5,600 square feet on Shedd’s mezzanine level.

Shedd’s unique patients benefit from a wet-and-dry exam area, a full surgical suite and both wet and dry recovery rooms. In addition to conventional diagnostic imaging equipment, Shedd’s hospital is equipped with specialized anesthesia equipment, including a machine custom-designed for fishes.

Conventional equipment is sometimes repurposed for veterinary uses, such as a donated mammography machine. It produces finely detailed images, perfect for use on small animals or for X-raying limbs and digits. The center also has portable (and water-resistant) radiograph and ultrasound equipment so that doctors can make “habitat calls” and conduct poolside exams.

The Abbott Oceanarium’s medical pool is a satellite facility of the hospital where marine mammal exams and procedures take place. During the 2009 renovation of the Oceanarium, a movable false floor was installed in the pool, eliminating the lengthy process of lowering the water level to gain access to a whale or dolphin. Now the medical team can be at an animal’s side within 90 seconds as the fiberglass-grate floor rises through the water by cables. Floor height can be adjusted to any level, up to 3 inches from the surface. By turning the floor into an examining table, the medical team has 360-degree access to the largest patients, and equipment can be brought within easy reach.

In the lab
In Shedd’s state-of-the-art environmental quality lab, EQ technicians — and an army of skilled volunteers — are responsible for monitoring the aquarium’s most basic resource, its 5 million gallons of fresh and salt water. Seven days a week they test samples of water from each habitat throughout the aquarium, checking temperature, pH, salinity, conductivity, bacteria counts, ammonia, calcium and other parameters. Some tests are repeated several times a day. They perform 300 water-quality tests a day — that’s more than 100,000 a year. The good health of the animals depends on the good health of their environments. And the monitoring does not stop at the water. Testing and monitoring also include air quality, light and sound measurements.

Training ground for future aquarium vets
Through the Illinois Zoological and Aquatic Animal Residency program, developed by Shedd in partnership with the University of Illinois and Brookfield Zoo, post-doctoral veterinary students have the opportunity to gain exceptional clinical training with a large and diverse collection of invertebrates, fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and terrestrial and marine mammals at the two zoological facilities. Shedd also has robust veterinary student and vet-tech student training programs that put students side by side with our veterinary team members and water-quality technicians for unparalleled hands-on learning experiences.