This little penguin can waddle easily again thanks to his custom-made boots

A small african penguin holds up a foot as if to take a step while two wildlife specialists crouch behind him on the ground, observing
Lucas the African penguin was recently fitted for new custom footwear. (Image credit: San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance)

Lucas, a San Diego Zoo penguin with a chronic condition called "bumblefoot" that makes walking painful, can now waddle and hop with ease again thanks to a new pair of orthopedic boots. 

"'Bumblefoot' is a word we use for pododermatitis in birds," meaning inflammation of the skin of the foot, Dr. Beth Bicknese, senior veterinarian at the San Diego Zoo, said in a video interview shared by the zoo. Birds don't build up calluses on their feet as effectively as mammals do, and this leaves their feet vulnerable to the condition. A diagnosis of bumblefoot "usually means the animal has either a skeletal or neurological problem and they're bearing weight inappropriately," Bicknese said, and in time, this can cause abscesses to form on the feet and lead to serious infections, and even sepsis, a life-threatening inflammatory reaction. 

In Lucas' case, his bumblefoot stemmed from a spinal infection that he developed more than three years ago — specifically, an infection of the discs that act as cushions between each vertebra. The inflammation from this infection damaged the penguin's spine, leaving him with muscle weakness in his legs and an inability to properly stand upright on his toes. Instead, Lucas sits back on his ankles, which wouldn't usually touch the ground, and he has developed painful sores on his left foot and legs because of it.

Because so much time has passed since Lucas' initial spinal infection, zoo caretakers do not expect the penguin to fully regain the lost nerve and muscle function, Bicknese said. Prior to receiving his new boots, the 4-year-old African penguin (Spheniscus demersus) was treated with pain medication, physical therapy and acupuncture, but these measures didn't improve his condition. So the zoo teamed with Thera-Paw, a company that makes rehabilitative and assistive products for animals, to have custom boots made for Lucas, according to a statement from the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance

Related: Over 60 million years ago, penguins abandoned flight for swimming. Here's how. 

"The boots are cushioned and Velcroed in place, so they will help Lucas to fully participate in the colony and showcase behaviors that are more typical for a penguin — such as climbing the rocks, swimming, nesting and finding a suitable mate," Bicknese said in the statement. Already, Lucas' gait and posture have improved, and he can balance and navigate his environment with much greater ease. 

"Lucas was one of the first birds that I raised here at the San Diego Zoo, so I've known him since he was an egg," senior wildlife care specialist Debbie Denton said in the video. "And we're very attached to each other, so it warms my heart just to know that we've been able to do something to make him more comfortable."

It's likely that Lucas will always need some sort of assistive device, like the new boots, Bicknese said in the video. "For the rest of his life, we'll be doing different mitigations to try to keep his feet as healthy as we can and keep him as comfortable as we can."

Originally published on Live Science.

Nicoletta Lanese
Channel Editor, Health

Nicoletta Lanese is the health channel editor at Live Science and was previously a news editor and staff writer at the site. She holds a graduate certificate in science communication from UC Santa Cruz and degrees in neuroscience and dance from the University of Florida. Her work has appeared in The Scientist, Science News, the Mercury News, Mongabay and Stanford Medicine Magazine, among other outlets. Based in NYC, she also remains heavily involved in dance and performs in local choreographers' work.