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How To Train Your Pig For An Echocardiogram

When Dakila arrived last year, Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium doctors decided something wasn't quite right.

She was small, “just kind of unthrifty in appearance … (and) didn’t really have a great hair coat,” said Dr. Ginger Sturgeon, Director of Animal Health.

Native to the Philippines, the 8-year-old Visayan warty pig has an abnormal condition called dilated cardiomyopathy, meaning she’s prone to lethargy and exercise intolerance. Sturgeon said Dakila can live a full, healthy life at the zoo, but her condition requires medication, vitamin E, extra avocado in her diet and regular exams. 

“Instead of the heart being a nice, compact pumping organ,” Sturgeon said during Dakila's routine echocardiogram on Wednesday. “It becomes kind of a floppy balloon that’s unable to pump blood to the rest of the body.”

Zoo staff trained Dakila to stand through the procedure, which assesses blood flow using ultrasound waves, and built her tolerance to the cool, sticky ultrasound gel. They didn't want to anesthetize her, Sturgeon said.

“We want to make sure that any procedure that we do is as stress free as possible,” she said. “Working with the animal to build trust is an important step in being able to provide the best care possible for our animals.” 

Zookeeper Mark McDonough began working with Dakila by rubbing her back, which comforts her.

“Once I knew that Dakila was comfortable with me touching her, the veterinary staff and I slowly introduced the echocardiogram machine,” McDonough said. “Dakila was wary at first, but she also trusted me.” 

McDonough often stands beside her talking and offering special treats. She stands still and isn't bothered by it, he said. Sturgeon performed the echocardiogram monthly after the initial diagnosis to track improvements, then every three months and now every six.

“She’s done phenomenal,” Sturgeon said.

Cardiomyopathy is also common in domestic dogs and can be a result of diet or genetics, though it isn't traced back to one particular illness, Sturgeon said.

Visayan warty pigs are critically endangered in their natural range because of human conflict and loss of habitat. They are extinct in 95 percent of their former homeland in the Philippines. 

90.5 WESA fellow Steve Jordan contributed to this report. 

Sarah Kovash previously worked as a web producer for KDKA-TV, as a freelance journalist for the Valley News Dispatch covering local government throughout the Alle-Kiski Valley and at NPR station KPBS in San Diego.
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