Spinal surgery on bald eagle at P.E.I. facility may be first of its kind

November 26, 2021
Spinal surgery on bald eagle at P.E.I. facility may be first of its kind
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In what could be a first for wildlife medicine, surgeons at the Atlantic Veterinary College in Charlottetown have attempted to repair the spine of a bald eagle.

When the eagle was brought to the globally-recognized facility on Oct. 26, he could not stand. Veterinarians suspected a spinal cord injury, a diagnosis that was confirmed by an X-ray.

“There’s one specific area on the spine that’s really common for big birds like this to break,” said Lara Cusack, senior clinician in the wildlife department.

“He had use of his back legs, in terms of being able to try to grab us with his talons and pull his legs back, but definitely wasn’t able to walk or stand up.”

Sometimes, with an injury like this, pressure on the spinal cord eases as the spine heals and the animal can recover. The eagle was taken into care and observed for two weeks, but the use of his legs did not improve.

The injury was putting pressure on the spinal cord, affecting the eagle’s use of his legs. (Atlantic Veterinary College)

That left staff in the wildlife department facing a choice. With any animal that comes in, the hope is that it can be released back into the wild. If it’s in a condition where it cannot fend for itself, but it is comfortable, it might be given a new home in a wildlife sanctuary.

But that was not the case with this bird. Because it could not stand, it was developing sores where it was resting on the ground. It also had injuries to its wings, including broken flight feathers, from using its wings to try to stand.

Flying in the dark

So the wildlife department team decided to make an effort to save the eagle.

“The animal was doing so well otherwise. He had a fantastic appetite and really a spirit, to be honest,” said Cusack. “He seemed like he wanted to live.”

The rare surgery went ahead Thursday afternoon. (Atlantic Veterinary College)

Spinal surgeries are common for dogs, but rare for birds.

A search of the scientific literature for information on how to approach the procedure on a bird revealed little. There was one similar surgery on a penguin 20 years ago, and that was all.

The surgical team would be flying in the dark, but they decided to give it go.

“Even if we ultimately don’t end up saving this bird, which would be really unfortunate, we certainly will know we tried,” said Cusack.

“That’s the only way our field progresses, so that maybe we can help this bird but also help another bird in the future.”

The surgery went ahead Thursday afternoon.

It is still very early in recovery, but Cusack was excited Friday morning when she went in to feed the unnamed eagle and found him standing.

It will be weeks before vets know how far the recovery of the eagle can go. If he can be released back into the wild, he will have to wait until his broken flight feathers are regrown.

The wildlife department is funded to care for wild animals, but a surgery of this complexity is outside the scope of its budget, and so it is fundraising to cover the costs.

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