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Polar Bear Health Checkups

They say it takes a village to raise a child, but we say it takes a province to care for polar bears. This has never been truer than this past weekend when, after many months of preparation, Ganuk, Henry and Inukshuk received full health checkups while under sedation. To ensure the safety and wellbeing of the bears and humans involved in this sensitive procedure, we were joined by expert veterinarians and wildlife professionals from around the province of Ontario. While the bears here at the Polar Bear Habitat regularly take part in voluntary veterinary procedures, including allowing us to take blood from them, administer their annual vaccinations and visually inspect their bodies, some procedures require them to be sedated. Led by the highly experienced Dr. Sherri Cox of the National Wildlife Centre, each bear was sedated and received a thorough physical exam, as well as a range of other tests specific to each of their needs.

Dr. Millson and Alyssa preparing the medications. Henry under sedation, being kept safe by Dr. Cox.

One such test was conducted on Ganuk who has shown symptoms which could be a result of seasonal allergies. To get a better understanding of what he may be allergic to, from which a personalized treatment can be made, a scratch test of the skin was required. To do this, Veterinary Dermatologist Dr. Stephen Waisglass of the King Animal Hospital in Toronto, shaved a section of fur from the side of Ganuk's chest. A series of potential allergens were then administered to the skin. From this, Dr. Waisglass was able to assess the skins' reaction and potentially provide a diagnosis. In Ganuk's case, the test results were somewhat inconclusive, but we will continue to investigate using other testing methods. We would like to assure you that Ganuk will be ok with a temporary patch of short fur. Hair growth at this time of year is heightened as we come into the colder months, so it won't be long until that area of fur grows back in.

Ganuk receiving an allergy test from Dr. Waisglass and his team.

At almost 21 years old, Inukshuk is a senior bear. It is vital that we, as his care givers, are conscious of age-related changes in his health and furthermore, that we are ready to act accordingly. Over the past couple of months, Inukshuk has shown some stiffness in his front right leg when first getting up in the morning, which could be indicative of arthritis. He has been receiving a daily dose of glucosamine supplement, similar to Ganuk, since we started to see the stiffness, but we also wanted to see what may be happening in his joints. X-rays of his front legs were conducted and have confirmed some changes in the bone. We will continue to provide supportive joint treatment and we remain optimistic with the improvement we have seen.

Being able to get our hands safely on the bears also provided a perfect opportunity for us to take part in an exciting conservation project, led by Polar Bears International. Each of the bears was fitted with a new style of tracking device that attaches to the fur, rather than around the neck as seen in the traditional tracking collar design. Known as a Burr on Fur, this small device attaches to the fur between the shoulders blades and is designed to fall off naturally when the bears shed in the spring. Bears in human care centres play a vital role in conservation projects such as this, as we can monitor them on a longitudinal basis that is just not possible in the wild. Not only can we closely observe the equipment to judge its efficacy over time, but we can assess a bears' reaction to ensure that it does not affect their day-to-day activities and behaviour.

Gail and Kearin fitting the Burr on Fur. The Burr on Fur with the protective covering

Sedation of polar bears is a precise science that will always involve some level of risk, but we are pleased to report that after a couple of days of rest and relaxation, Ganuk, Henry and Inukshuk have all recovered well and are back to their usual selves.

We would like to express our sincere gratitude to everyone who came together to assist us in this endeavour. Special thanks to Dr. Sherri Cox and her staff of the National Wildlife Centre, Mike McIntosh from the Bear With Us Centre for Bears, Dr. Stephen Waisglass and his team of the King Animal Hospital, Dr. Millson and Alyssa McKean of Millson Veterinary Services in Timmins, staff from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry and of course, the dedicated Animal Care Team here at the Polar Bear Habitat.

Ganuk comfortably sleeping after his procedure.

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