Doctors from the Cardiac Center at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Zoo Assess Gorilla’s Cardiac Health

(December 20, 2011) - As part of a physical exam, cardiologists from the Cardiac Center at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia were invited to join veterinarians from the Philadelphia Zoo in assessing the cardiac health of a 33-year-old, 207-pound female gorilla named Kivu.

Studies show that some gorillas in zoos develop a heart condition called fibrosing cardiomyopathy, a condition in which the pumping chambers of the heart become enlarged and weakened. Gorilla experts have proposed that a trans-esophageal echocardiogram to look at the animals’ heart should be a component of routine yearly physical exams to ensure that any evidence of cardiac disease can be detected early enough to allow treatment and prevent sudden death.

“Undiagnosed and untreated cardiomyopathy can lead to cardiac failure and arrest in gorillas, just as in humans,” said Dr. Anirban Banerjee, a cardiologist at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “As Kivu was under general anesthesia for a dental procedure, we took this opportunity to ensure that her heart was structurally and functionally normal.”

While the gorilla was under general anesthesia, Dr. Banerjee and his colleague, Dr. Javier Lasa, inserted an endoscopic camera into the gorilla’s esophagus to image her heart. Later, the same group of cardiologists performed a regular echocardiogram from outside the gorilla’s chest to capture the heart at different angles.

Zookeepers are also training the gorillas to participate in regular heart echocardiograms while they are awake.  The keepers reward the gorillas for holding still while they touch the echocardiogram  probe through the enclosure mesh to the gorilla’s chest. Currently, the keepers are using a “dummy”  probe to accustom the animals to the procedure, but eventually will work with the Zoo’s veterinarians and consulting cardiologists to transition to an actual echocardiogram probe.

“Whenever we have an animal under anesthesia for any reason, we take that opportunity to perform as many preventive medical procedures and evaluations as possible,” said Dr. Keith Hinshaw, the Zoo’s Director of Animal Health.

“In this case, we were fortunate the cardiologists from Children’s Hospital could perform this extremely important cardiac exam in conjunction with Kivu’s dental treatment.”

Dr. Banerjee performs many trans-esophageal electrocardiograms at Children’s Hospital, but this was his first procedure on a gorilla. The heart is in a slightly different position in gorillas because of their stooped stature, making the images appear in different planes compared with humans, added Dr. Banerjee.

Kivu has recovered well from her exam and has rejoined the gorilla troop in the Zoo’s PECO Primate Reserve exhibit.

The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia was founded in 1855 as the nation's first pediatric hospital. Through its long-standing commitment to providing exceptional patient care, training new generations of pediatric healthcare professionals and pioneering major research initiatives, Children’s Hospital has fostered many discoveries that have benefited children worldwide. Its pediatric research program is among the largest in the country, ranking third in National Institutes of Health funding. In addition, its unique family-centered care and public service programs have brought the 516-bed hospital recognition as a leading advocate for children and adolescents. For more information, visit http://www.chop.edu.