Caring for a sick penguin

Posted 26 Apr 2024 in Edinburgh Zoo

Alfie king penguin 

IMAGE: Rhiordan Langan-Fortune 2023

Back in January our keepers noticed Alfie, one of our king penguins, was acting a little different. He wasn’t interested in his food and was isolating himself from the rest of the king penguin group. The keepers called the vet team immediately and we visited him for a physical exam and drew some blood for testing.

Only a few days later Alfie experienced his first neurological episode and was moved to the penguin isolation area so he wouldn’t injure himself in the pool. Despite being put on medication to help, he continued to have episodes almost every day and was not taking food from his keepers.

As Alfie had also started vomiting, we took him to our on-site vet hospital for radiographs and an endoscopy exam. We also reached out to our colleagues at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies. Dr Joao De Frias, a Lecturer in Neurology and Neurosurgery, recommended Alfie come into the Hospital for Small Animals for CT and MRI scans.

During transport, Alfie was given a low dose of sedative and placed inside a barrel with ice so we could keep him nice and cool. A GoPro was also used so he could be easily monitored. 

Alfie king penguin getting scan at the vet hospital

IMAGE: Steph Mota 2023

Once at the Vet School, everyone was ready to start Alfie’s scans. Our team had help from Dr Jenna Richardson, Senior Lecturer in Exotic Animals and Wildlife, and the Anaesthesia, Neurology and Digital Imaging teams throughout the entire process.

After his scans, Alfie was diagnosed with a suspected infectious meningoencephalitis (which basically means an infection in the brain) – and this one was quite a big one!

With this diagnosis, we were able to refine our medical treatment so that it could more easily be absorbed by the brain and fight the infection. Our penguin keepers did a fantastic job getting Alfie to take his medication and assisting in feeding him while he was still ill.

Our main goal was to help Alfie fight this infection and keep him comfortable. Penguins are very sociable, so as soon as Alfie started to feel better, he was allowed daily visits from the other king penguins - Sir Nils visited him quite often!

Thankfully Alfie’s neurologic episodes stopped, his appetite returned and he was given full access to Penguins Rock again. All the king penguins came to welcome him back and it was a touching moment to see them all singing together.

Now, three months later, Alfie is recovering well and we are cautiously optimistic as he still has a long recovery ahead of him. 

Dr Stephanie Mota


At the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, we pride ourselves on being able to provide the best care for our animals, which can occasionally include a CT or MRI scan. We are very pleased to maintain a strong partnership with the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, who allow us the opportunity to not only access their facilities, but to also collaborate with their expert team.