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Shedd veterinarian Doctor Matt O'Connor gently touches the back of a caiman lizard's neck to encourage it to open its mouth for a tongue depressor.

Doctors in the house

Shedd’s veterinarians and staff of veterinary technicians can be thought of as the equivalent of 1,500 specialists—one for each animal species at Shedd. Compared with the body of medical knowledge about domestic animals, and even terrestrial zoo animals, aquatic animal medicine is still a new frontier in veterinary science.

Shedd veterinarians have pioneered the use of chemotherapy to treat fish with cancer. Their growing knowledge of prenatal care for belugas, nutritional and medical support for orphaned sea otters and geriatric care for a host of long-lived aquarium residents is shared through scientific publication and peer conferences reaching the international community of veterinarians and biologists.

Trainer Gretchen sits in ankle-deep water working with a beluga whale.

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.

Preventive care for the animals isn’t that different from the care people receive: regular physicals, 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 veterinarians to collect baseline data for all the animals in our care.

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 5,600-square-foot 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 equipment like an anesthesia machine custom-designed for fishes.

Onsite clinical pathology and microbiology labs run nearly 2,500 tests, like routine blood panels, annually. The Center’s newest lab, designed for molecular and microbial ecology, uses DNA to provide vets with a rapid and precise diagnosis.

Radiographs of central newts show that the bones in their very flexible tails extend all the way to the tips.
Shedd vet techs performing an ultrasound on a dolphin in the Abbott Oceanarium

Habitat calls

The center also has portable, water-resistant imaging equipment, such as ultrasound, so that veterinarians can conduct poolside exams for larger animals like the belugas, dolphins and sea lions. In addition, the Abbott Oceanarium’s behind-the-scenes medical pool is a satellite facility of the hospital where procedures can take place. During a recent renovation of the Oceanarium, a false floor was installed in the pool, allowing for rapid and safe access to whales or dolphins for examination.

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 for urgent care.

“We have a common goal in providing these animals with the best care possible.”

Dr. Matt O'Connor, Head Veterinarian

In the lab

The good health of the animals depends on the good health of their environments. At the animal hospital’s state-of-the-art environmental quality lab, 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. They perform 300 water-quality tests a day—that’s more than 100,000 a year.

A volunteer at the environmental quality lab works on a water sample.

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 veterinarians can gain exceptional clinical training with a large and diverse collection of invertebrates, fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds and terrestrial and marine mammals at the three world-class 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.