At the end of August 2022, African Rift Valley keepers arrived to work to find Lomela, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo’s 15-year-old African lion matriarch, was not acting like herself.
“Lomela is normally intensely focused on her keepers’ every move and is quick to engage with us,” said Rachael Hahn, senior lead keeper in African Rift Valley. “That morning, she looked sort of ‘spacey’ and lethargic. We thought she might have injured herself because she was resistant to shifting when we asked her to.”
According to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the median life expectancy for an African lion is 16.9 years, so Lomela is considered geriatric. Except for inevitable age-related slow-downs, like arthritis, she seemed to be relatively healthy until that morning. The team leaned on Lomela’s previous voluntary health care training to find out what was causing the sudden and drastic decline.
“Lomela is incredibly intelligent, so even though she wasn’t feeling great, she was able to follow our training cues so we could help her,” said Hahn. “When we ask her to participate in blood draw and blood pressure behaviors, we ask her to move into a training area that has a small sliding panel at the bottom of it. Once she’s comfortable, she moves her tail out of the port so we can safely reach it. We use the big vein in her tail to draw blood and get blood pressure readings for her. She gets lots of yummy snacks for participating, and we are able to diagnose what’s going on.”
The tests revealed that Lomela had extremely elevated kidney levels and high blood pressure. Unfortunately, kidney disease is prevalent in domestic and big cats and high blood pressure is known to worsen kidney disease. Lion fans may remember that Abuto, the 10-year-old African lion patriarch at CMZoo, has also dealt with this disease for many years.
However, the disease impacts each individual differently, and Lomela seems to be much further along in its progression than Abuto. It’s estimated she has only about 25 percent kidney function remaining. Thanks to her participation and her care team’s quick actions, she seems to have leveled out since her worst in late August. But, the outlook for cats with kidney failure can be unpredictable.
With medication changes, the team got her blood pressure under control within about a week. Getting her blood pressure under control took the pressure off of her kidneys and prevented further damage.
“At the end of August, I was concerned,” said Dr. Eric Klaphake, DVM, DACZM, head veterinarian at CMZoo. “Her kidney values and blood pressure have improved since then, and we will continue to monitor that, and adjust things as needed. She seems to be at a stable point now, but unfortunately once kidney values are that high, you have lost kidney function forever, so we’re monitoring her carefully.”
Elsa, Lomela’s 6-year-old daughter, has also been watching her mom closely.
“We could tell Lomela was really feeling better when she started playing with Elsa again,” said Hahn. “Elsa can be pretty relentless when she wants to play, but she gave Lomela space when she needed it. Now, we’ve seen the two cuddling and wrestling like before, so we’re hopeful they have a lot more time together.”
Lomela’s team will continue monitoring her health through bi-weekly blood draws and weekly blood pressure readings. They will also encourage her to continue participating in training sessions that help her stay hydrated by drinking lots of water, and with stretches that help manage arthritis pain without medications that could contribute to kidney damage.
Abuto’s care routine also continues, but the ‘mane man’ in African Rift Valley seems to be doing well. In January 2021, we shared a behind-the-scenes video of Abuto’s health care husbandry training sessions. Although Abuto’s loss of kidney function is also irreversible, his team has been able to help him live a good quality of life by focusing on blood pressure management, hydration and nutrition.
“We have been so happy with Abuto’s response to his ongoing treatments,” said Hahn. “We’re always cautious when we share that our older big cats seem to be doing well because we know how quickly things can change. We have so much respect for them, and of course we want them to stay forever, but we will know when it’s time to make the most compassionate decision of all.”
Learn more about all five of CMZoo’s African lions at https://www.cmzoo.org/animals/a-z/featured-animals-african-lion/, and visit them in African Rift Valley next time you’re at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo.