World First: Cataract Surgery Sees Penguins Fitted with Custom Lenses from Germany

In the “Is this for real?” department, news out of Singapore is that six elderly penguins with cataracts had life-changing surgery late last year to correct the common age-related problem. To top it off, three of the animals received custom lenses from Germany. How’s that for interesting news?

Successful cataract surgery was carried out on six geriatric penguins residing at Jurong Bird Park located in Singapore. The sextet was said to be made up of three King Penguins and three Humboldt Penguins. As with humans, the surgery helped improve their sight and their quality of life.

Cataract surgery involves the removal of the cloudy lenses commonly observed in the progressive medical condition. The development of cataracts hinders the ability to see. As an extra benny, the King Penguins were also fitted with custom-made intraocular lens implants, which involved placing an artificial lens on the eye, a procedure believed to be a world’s first for penguins.

penguin eye exam
Photo: Mandai Wildlife Group

Courtesy of the Mandai Wildlife Group, veterinarian Dr. Ellen Rasidi said, “We noticed the cloudiness in their lens and moving about like they were having difficulty seeing things in front of them. Cataract surgeries for animals are increasingly common and effective for restoring vision. Together with the animal care team, we opted for this procedure to enhance their overall well-being and welfare, as well as aid in the transition to their new home in Bird Paradise when they move.

“Since the recovery period, we have observed an increase in responsiveness and activity levels in the penguins. It is nice to see them more active, indicating their improved vision, and for the King Penguins – adapting well to the new lenses as well.”

Once animals at the Mandai Wildlife Reserve reach 70 percent of their life span they are placed in a Senior Animal Care Plan. The plan includes increased health checks by the veterinary team as well as specialized diets to ensure quality of life in their advanced years.

custom lens for penguin
Photo: Mandai Wildlife Group

As part of the penguins’ eye care, Mandai engaged veterinary ophthalmologist Dr. Gladys Boo from The Eye Specialist for Animals. The examinations took place back in August 2022 to check the vision of the reserve’s penguin colony. That’s how the six birds were diagnosed with cataracts.

Following the diagnosis, teams from both facilities successfully performed cataract surgeries on the penguins in December 2022. Afterward, the penguins had to abstain from swimming and were kept in a separate den from the rest of the colony while they recovered. During that period, keepers there administered eye drops twice daily. After two months they’d made a full recovery.

“The success of these surgeries marks a milestone in veterinary medicine. While intraocular lens implants are common for humans and some domestic mammals, it is likely the first time they have been successfully used on penguins,” Dr. Boo said. “As a larger species, the King Penguins have eyes large and stable enough to hold the custom lenses in place, so we decided to pursue this world-first procedure to further improve their vision above removing the cataract.

cataract surgery on a penguin
Photo: Mandai Wildlife Group

“The lenses were custom-made in Germany to fit each penguin’s eye based on precise measurements taken in advance and took about two months to make. Cataract surgeries on their own are already delicate procedures, but for penguins, it was made trickier by unique characteristics such as a third eyelid which protects their eyes underwater. The third eyelid tends to close during the surgery, which can make it difficult for us to access the eye. I’m glad we were able to work through these challenges to improve the lives of these animals.”

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