REACHING NEW HEIGHTS: Scientific Breakthroughs in Giraffe Veterinary Care
Custom-made urethane “sneakers,” laser therapy and stem cell transfusions sound like cutting-edge medical treatments going on at a big city hospital, but these advanced treatments are actually being conducted by Dr. Liza Dadone right here at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo.
Dr. Dadone, the Zoo’s VP of Missions and Conservation and head veterinarian, is a big believer in innovation and thinking outside the box, especially when it comes to the care of our aging animals. Large animals like giraffe are susceptible to arthritis, largely stemming from their sheer size. Like all animals (humans included), these issues are exacerbated as they age.
“So much of it just relates to the pure mechanics of weighing a ton,” Dr. Dadone said. “So we’re doing as many things as we can to implement innovation in their home so they have minimal wear and tear on their joints.”
That innovation includes the installation of rubberized flooring throughout the giraffe barn, which is much easier on aging giraffe joints than their previous flooring. It also includes the development of an extensive hoof care program.
“We are able to evaluate their feet, do a thorough exam on them, and pick out any pebbles or debris,” explained Dr. Dadone. “We can also trim their hooves as needed to maintain normal foot shape. This is all a voluntary trained behavior, something that used to require general anesthesia. For us to have our entire herd trained for voluntary foot care is unprecedented and a testament to the incredible training and care our Zoo provides,” she said.
Recently, this training, and the high degree of trust between our giraffe herd and their animal care team, allowed for what we believe might be a world-first in giraffe care. Twiga, a 14-year-old female giraffe at the Zoo, has advanced arthritis and osteoporosis in her feet. Dr. Dadone and the veterinary team have been monitoring and treating her condition for some time, but was no longer seeing improvement with currently available treatments. Dr. Dadone then contacted Zoo giraffe farrier, Steve Foxworth, to discuss if new techniques in horseshoes could provide some relief for this giraffe.
“We’ve had Twiga on medicine to help reverse her osteoporosis, but we wanted to do more to protect her feet. So with the help of the farriers, we gave her ‘giraffe sneakers’ to help give her some extra cushion,” said Dr. Dadone. “She has half-inch heels now!”
To get the “sneakers” onto Twiga’s feet, the keepers cued Twiga to place her hoof on a specially-designed hoof block, then farriers Steve Foxworth and Chris Niclas of the Equine Lameness Prevention Organization (ELPO) did a routine hoof trim to the foot, a procedure Foxworth performs monthly. Once her foot was clean and ready, the shoe was placed on her sole by Niclas with quick-drying glue. The “sneakers” are divided on the undersides and were designed by Niclas to adjust to Twiga’s individual digits.
Dr. Dadone said the change in Twiga’s behavior was immediate.
“As soon as we glued the first pair on her left front foot, she immediately shifted all her weight off her right foot and stood as willing as any animal when they know you are trying to help,” said Dr. Dadone.
The shoes help to stabilize Twiga and will likely stay on for around six weeks. Dr. Dadone says they will assess Twiga’s progress at that time. She is eager to share information regarding this treatment option so that other veterinary teams at fellow zoos and aquariums can use this technique to help benefit their animals as well.
Twiga, one of 17 in North America’s largest zoo giraffe herd, is not the oldest here at the Zoo, nor is she the only one with age-related issues.
“We’re finding that a lot of the old age conditions like arthritis really show up in our giraffe by the time they’re teenagers, above age 10,” Dr. Dadone said.
Tamu, at age 31, is the oldest giraffe in an AZA facility in North America.
Dr. Dadone and the veterinary team regularly monitor Tamu, who happens to be the great-grandmother of our newest female giraffe calf, Rae. Vet staff periodically use thermography and X-rays to monitor Tamu’s age-related inflammation and arthritis, so they can modify treatments to help ensure she’s as comfortable as possible. She also receives necessary supplements and enrichment as part of her daily diet.
Mahali, a 14-year-old male, is another Zoo giraffe who recently received an innovative new treatment. Dr. Dadone and staff of the Colorado State University veterinary program were able to grow stem cells from giraffe blood to then inject back into the giraffe.
Mahali suffers from chronic arthritis and has not been moving well, despite a number of medications and additional treatments the animal care and veterinary teams have aided him with. Dr. Dadone decided on a ground-breaking stem cell injection treatment plan.
In scientific studies, stem cell therapy has proven to repair damaged tissue at the cellular level.
It’s been nearly a month since the procedure, when Dr. Dadone and her CMZoo team, along with the partnership of the Colorado State University veterinary program, who grew the stem cell line, injected Mahali with around 100 million stem cells.
Dr. Dadone is extremely hopeful about the successful outcome.
“This is meaningful to us not only because it is the first time a giraffe has been treated with stem cells, but especially because it is bringing Mahali some arthritis relief and could help other giraffe in the near future,” she said.
“Prior to the procedure, he was favoring his left front leg and would lift that foot off the ground almost each minute,” Dr. Dadone said. “During the immobilization, we did multiple treatments that included hoof trims, stem cell therapy and other medications. Since then, Mahali seems much more comfortable and has resumed cooperating for hoof care. Thermography confirms he now has much less inflammation in his leg since the treatments. Based on this, he has now returned to life with his herd, including yard access.”
Dr. Dadone said she is not sure if Mahali’s results are simply due to the stem cell therapy or are a combination of different treatments, but she’s pleased and assured his quality of life has dramatically improved.
With these incredible scientific advances seemingly proving successful, Dr. Dadone is excited to share her results with the greater zoo community.
Next up, the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo giraffe team wants to continue to study giraffe hooves and ways to improve hoof treatment and arthritis. Later this year, part of the team will go to Africa to help with giraffe conservation and concurrently study how wild giraffe feet compare with the feet of our giraffe. Our hope is that this helps us find ways to further improve foot health for zoo giraffe around the world.
Onward, and like our long-necked friends, upward, we go.
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