Texas A&M SAH Team Faces Unique Challenges Treating Rescued Otter

Story by Megan Myers

An otter sits in a metal bin
Fisher the North American river otter. Photo credit: Texas State Aquarium

Fisher, the North American river otter, made quite a splash when he recently came to the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences’ (CVMBS) Small Animal Hospital (SAH) for a dental procedure.

Though Fisher came in for a simple tooth extraction, his veterinary team discovered a much more serious problem under the surface. Luckily, the experts on his team were more than prepared to face any challenges in their way, including those unique to his species.

While North American river otters are native to Texas, they aren’t frequently seen by Texas A&M veterinarians; Fisher was only the seventh otter to visit the SAH in the past 22 years, so he provided a great opportunity for clinicians, staff members, and veterinary students to gain experience with a new species.

Fisher’s story began in North Texas, where he was discovered in the woods by a fisherman’s dog.

The fisherman took the pup to a local wildlife rehabilitator, who cared for him until he was a few months old, and then the Texas State Aquarium in Corpus Christi decided to adopt Fisher as a friend for their recently rescued otter, Arthur.

Because both pups were about the same age and had been around people too much to be released into the wild, they were a perfect match.

Once Fisher arrived at his new home, the Texas State Aquarium’s head veterinarian Dr. Taylor Yaw, a 2014 CVMBS graduate, performed a full medical exam and discovered what looked like a fractured tooth, which required surgery to fix.

Knowing the challenges associated with otter surgery, Yaw decided to bring Fisher to his alma mater to seek assistance from the SAH’s specialists in anesthesiology, dentistry, and exotic animal medicine.

Helping Each Otter Out

When Fisher arrived at the SAH, he was greeted by Dr. Ashley Navarrette ‘17, the CVMBS clinical assistant professor who oversaw his case. Though she was not experienced with otter medicine, she used her knowledge of similar small mammals to approach Fisher’s care.

“Otters fall into the family Mustelidae, which includes ferrets,” she said. “They’re in that realm, like ferrets, of seeming like a cat/dog hybrid as it pertains to their unique anatomy and physiology. But for the most part, we don’t extrapolate too much medicine from dogs and cats to otters; we use a lot of what we know about ferrets and weasels.”

A sleeping otter
Fisher sleeping.  Photo credit: Texas State Aquarium

Navarrette coordinated with anesthesiology specialists Drs. Keila Ida, a clinical assistant professor, and Sarah Jarosinski, a veterinary resident, to sedate Fisher and prepare him for surgery.

Once Fisher was asleep, they faced two challenges unique to otters.

“The biggest concern with otters is that unlike most dogs and cats, they don’t like to breathe on their own while under anesthesia,” Navarrette said. “You have to manually breathe for them either by depressing a reservoir bag or hooking them up to a ventilator, the former being what we did.

“The other major thing we had to watch for is that while dogs and cats often get cold while under anesthesia, it tends to be the opposite for otters,” she said. “The anesthetics actually push them the opposite direction and they can develop dangerous hyperthermia. Thankfully, Fisher didn’t have any issues with that.”

Once Fisher was stable under anesthesia, Dr. Bert Dodd, a CVMBS clinical professor and dentistry specialist, began the procedure.

Dodd usually spends his days treating dogs and cats and was excited to have the opportunity to work with an otter for the first time.

“It’s always fun to treat something a little different, but it’s also fun to see how similar they are to other species,” Dodd said. “The shape and amount of the teeth are a little bit different, but, overall, it was much like working with a small dog.”

When Dodd began his procedure, he was surprised to find that Fisher’s tooth wasn’t fractured—it was impacted in the jaw bone. As a result, Fisher was beginning to develop a dentigerous cyst, a slow-growing benign cyst surrounding the impacted tooth that can result in a broken jaw if left untreated.

“I located the tooth in the jaw after removing some bone and then took the tooth out and filled the socket back up with a bone-promoting product,” Dodd said. “The challenge was getting that tooth out of the bone without breaking the jaw. That’s always a scary part (of this procedure) and that’s one of the reasons most veterinarians don’t try to do this surgery.”

Thanks to Dodd’s expertise and years of experience, the surgery was successful and Fisher began a quick and seamless recovery.

An Otterly Bright Future

An otter swimming
Fisher swimming.  Photo credit: Texas State Aquarium

Now back home at the Texas State Aquarium, Fisher spends each day learning and playing in Otter Creek with his new best friend, Arthur.

“He is living the life,” Yaw said. “He has a group of eight trainers who will be taking care of him for the rest of his life, and he’s already started his training program. He’s definitely an eager learner.”

By training Fisher to open his mouth, roll over, and stay still on command, the aquarium’s trainers can make sure that his regular veterinary checkups are as easy and stress-free as possible.

As a permanent resident of the aquarium, Fisher plays a key role in educating visitors about wildlife conservation.

“We have North American river otters at the aquarium so people can learn about them,” Yaw said. “They are also a species that we’re actively trying to help preserve through our Wildlife Rescue Center.”

Fisher’s case may have been full of unique challenges and surprises, but thanks to Yaw’s foresight and the talented team of SAH veterinarians on his case, Fisher completely recovered and will enjoy his life of fun and games pain-free.

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For more information about the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, please visit our website at vetmed.tamu.edu or join us on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

Contact Information: Jennifer Gauntt, Director of CVM Communications, Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences; jgauntt@cvm.tamu.edu; 979-862-4216

Petco Foundation Grant Assists Patients Working To BTHO Cancer

Story by Dorian Martin

A black dog and a brown dog lay down under a tree
FlapJack and Papillion

From the moment Flapjack was adopted as a puppy from the Houston Humane Society in 2008, he became an integral part of his new family.

“He was super smart from the time we got him,” said Flapjack’s owner Robert Schmidt. “He was very inquisitive and he seemed tuned in with the world, not just in a puppy or a dog way, but in a sentient way.”

Flapjacks’s ability to provide empathetic support was critical when Schmidt’s first wife, Lori, developed cancer in 2015.

“When somebody is dealing with a terminal illness, a lot of your friends and family don’t know how to react so they stop coming around as much,” he remembered. “Flapjack and his sister and brother were often the only shoulder to cry on while Lori was going through her illness and when she passed away in 2017.”

Soon after, Flapjack came to need support of his own.

In 2018, Schmidt took the dog to Springtown Veterinary in San Marcos for a dental cleaning and agreed to have a discounted ultrasound while Flapjack was sedated. That test identified a tiny, possibly cancerous tumor on Flapjack’s bladder, so Schmidt asked for a referral to the Texas A&M Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital (VMTH).

After the tumor was confirmed as bladder cancer, his initial conversations with the VMTH staff were difficult.

“When I went there and talked to some of the doctors and the oncology nurses, they painted a bleak picture,” he said, “and I believed it because I got the same talk in 2015 when my wife was diagnosed with cancer.”

Despite being unsure that surgery could cure the cancer, Schmidt and the VMTH Oncology Service decided to do everything possible to try to heal Flapjack, despite the cost.

Thanks to the talented veterinary surgeons, Flapjack’s operation was successful. They removed the entire tumor and, in subsequent check-ups, found that the cancer has not returned.

“I’m a realist and every checkup I expect a recurrence,” Schmidt said. “They had said that he would probably not be here by now, a year-and-a-half later.

“If we hadn’t found the tumor and if it weren’t for the good people in Springtown Veterinary suggesting the ultrasound, Dr. Dan Allen (Flapjack’s veterinarian) being quick and giving me the referral to A&M, and the good work of the VMTH staff, he wouldn’t be with us,” he said.

Schmidt was overjoyed to return home with Flapjack, but he also was concerned about paying off a bill for $12,000, the total cost to treat the bladder cancer.

Three people and two dogs sit in front of the Texas A&M Small Animal Hospital entrance
From left: Robert Schmidt, Papillion, wife Kandi, FlapJack, and lead veterinary technician for Oncology Service Jaci Christensen

Fortunately, the VMTH and Petco Foundation were able to help with a Pet Cancer Treatment grant.

The Petco grant, awarded to the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM) in 2019, stipulated that the grant’s funds assist pet owners facing extensive costs in treating their animal’s cancer. In the time since, several pet owners have tapped into these funds to defray costs.

The financial support from Petco and other funding sources helped Schmidt greatly.

“You don’t realize how generous people are when it comes to your animal family,” he said. “It always chokes me up when someone tells me that they’ve given a gift for Flapjack’s treatment because it renews my faith in people. I love Flapjack like my son and companies like Petco recognize that and do things to take some of the pressure off of you so you can worry about making your animal well. It’s a huge blessing.”

A Company That Cares

The Pet Cancer Treatment grant program primarily supports cancer treatments at large- and medium-sized oncology departments in colleges of veterinary medicine.

“This grant helps pet owners with the pretty extensive costs associated with cancer therapy in animals,” said Dr. Heather Wilson-Robles, CVM associate professor and Dr. Fred A. and Vola N. Palmer Chair in Comparative Oncology. “It is meant to help people pay for those things so that they can actually get their animals treated if they want to.”

The Petco Foundation grant is the only industry grant funding that the oncology team, which is the second-most used service in the VMTH behind the emergency room, has received to support patient care.

“We’re extremely grateful for all of our donors, but the Petco Foundation funds have allowed us to do a lot more for clients because it is such a large donation,” Wilson-Robles said.

The grant’s funds provide an important financial resource for care that can quickly escalate and for innovative therapies that may benefit the pet.

“Since we’re an integrated service, almost all our patients will receive multimodality therapy, which is what tends to make it expensive,” Wilson-Robles said. “Many of them have preoperative radiation, then they’ll have surgery, then they’ll get chemo. The cost really does build up.

“Also, if there is a fairly novel or new treatment and we’re thinking outside the box, sometimes that costs money,” she said. “We can support the owner and not feel like we’re charging them for something when we don’t know what the outcome’s going to be.”

The Petco grant has also been a boon for the VMTH’s staff.

“It’s been huge for morale, especially for some of the house officers (who serve as liaisons between clients and clinicians). They’re on the front lines, and they get really attached to these patients and clients over time,” Wilson-Robles said. “For the house officers to be able to say, ‘The clients are out of money; is there any way we can help them with these funds?’ and for us be able to say ‘Yes’ really helps them feel good.”

Today, at 12 years old, Flapjack is still healthy, active, and cancer-free.

“He’s doing well and hopefully he’ll live a full life and another three, four, or five years,” Schmidt said. “When you see him, he’s really like a puppy. He doesn’t look like a 12-year-old dog. He’s just a little happy rambunctious puppy dog.”

Like Flapjack, many beloved pets will benefit from the Petco grant. Their owners and the VMTH oncology staff can focus on doing everything possible to BTHO cancer, knowing the Petco Foundation is there to support them.

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Note: A version of this story originally appeared in the Spring 2020 edition of CVM Today.

For more information about the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, please visit our website at vetmed.tamu.edu or join us on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

Contact Information: Jennifer Gauntt, Director of Communications, Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences; jgauntt@cvm.tamu.edu; 979-862-4216

Texas A&M LAH Gives Long-Term Patient Hope Using Stem Cell Therapy

Story by Megan Myers

Santana, a brown horse, next to Chloe Bening holding up a sign reading "I'm going to be an Aggie veterinarian!"
Santana and veterinary student Chloe Bening

Many veterinarians and staff members at the Texas A&M Large Animal Hospital (LAH) recognize Santana Bening. The 24-year-old Quarter Horse has been a patient since 2015 and for several years now has been visiting every five weeks to receive specialty shoes and other treatments for injured tendons in his front feet.

Some also know Santana by his owner, Chloe Bening, a second-year veterinary student at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM).

Chloe got Santana when they were both 11 years old, and the two immediately became best friends. Together, they participated in American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) all-around events and dressage, competed nationally, and took home the AQHA Year-End High Point in Youth first-level dressage award in 2013.

When Santana developed a severe lameness of his front right foot in August 2016, he was subsequently retired from his show career. Chloe and her parents brought him to the LAH, where he was seen by Dr. Sarah Sampson, a clinical assistant professor of equine sports medicine and imaging.

“Santana was so lame when we first saw him that the only way we could get him comfortable was to put his leg in a bandage cast so that he didn’t have any significant movement of that limb,” Sampson said.

Following an ultrasound and MRI, Sampson determined that Santana had severe deep flexor tendon injuries in both of his front feet, with the right foot being more painful at the time. This tendon damage was partially caused by a degenerative process commonly seen in his breed and repetitive strain over his long show career.

Even though the Benings knew they had a long, expensive road ahead of them to heal Santana, they were determined to do whatever was necessary to get him happy and pain-free.

Dr. Sarah Sampson walking Santana in a field
Santana and Dr. Sarah Sampson

Starting With Stem Cells

After his diagnosis and a short period of rest, Santana began treatment with a series of stem cell perfusions in his front feet.

Stem cell perfusions work by injecting stem cells cultured from bone marrow, in this case taken from Santana’s sternum, into the affected limb. With their anti-inflammatory properties and their ability to signal to other cells in the body, stem cells improve the horse’s ability to self-heal.

According to Sampson, stem cells are a relatively common treatment at the LAH, especially in the sports medicine service.

“Between all of the services at the hospital, I think there’s usually a horse in one of the services receiving stem cell treatment,” Sampson said. “Because we have a lab of our own at Texas A&M, it’s pretty easy for us to get bone marrow and do the culturing.”

Stem cells are most frequently used to treat injured tendons and ligaments in horses but are also becoming a more common option for cartilage tears or fractures in joints. Equine veterinarians are hopeful that with time, even more possibilities will arise.

“There’s a lot of research that still needs to be done,” Sampson said. “The hope is that we will be able to say, ‘This is a lesion that we can definitely help with stem cells,’ and to be able to focus in on where we truly can be the most helpful.”

Chloe Bening riding Santana
Chloe Bening and Santana

Slow And Steady

While receiving stem cell treatments, Santana also began visiting Jason Maki, the LAH’s in-house farrier, whom Santana has seen every five weeks since for shoe adjustments. He was first fitted with thick, protective shoes called clogs that kept his heels elevated to reduce the pain in his feet and allow the tendons to heal, before gradually transitioning to shoes with a large heel wedge.

To protect his tendons, the Benings no longer ride Santana but still keep him busy practicing showmanship, which involves leading a horse through a pattern of walking, trotting, backing up, and pivoting.

“He really loves to stay competition-ready. He likes to be all shaved and look like a show horse,” Chloe said. “Besides that, he gets hand grazed and turned out in a small turnout, so he can’t hurt himself but is big enough that he can walk, trot, lope, and mess around. He’s living the good retired life.”

In addition to the talented veterinarians and staff members who have contributed to Santana’s healing journey, Sampson largely credits the Benings for his success.

“The Benings are those clients who do everything we tell them to do better than we could probably do it ourselves,” Sampson said. “At one point, his feet needed to be iced 24 hours a day, and they were paying people to go to the barn where he was boarded and ice him through the night. That’s what helps us treat animals the best, when the owners do exactly what you say.”

Santana an dDr. Sarah Sampson in front of the VENI Building
Santana and Dr. Sarah Sampson

At Home In College Station

Luckily, Santana doesn’t mind the drive from Katy to College Station every five weeks, mainly because it gets him an extra visit with Chloe.

“As soon as mom pulls up the trailer at the barn and says, ‘You ready to go see Chloe?’ he will drag her to the trailer and jump right in,” Chloe said. “He loves to see all of the veterinary students, so he walks in there like he owns the place.”

Being a CVM student, Chloe has the extra benefit of being able to know the “behind-the-scenes” of Santana’s care and studying under the faculty members, like Sampson, who treat him.

“It feels like a group effort to take care of him at this point because everybody’s seen him for so long,” she said. “It’s awesome because I know that they’re taking care of him and I can trust them; I know that they’re always there watching him. It’s just so nice to know that they care so much for him.”

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For more information about the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, please visit our website at vetmed.tamu.edu or join us on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

Contact Information: Jennifer Gauntt, Director of CVM Communications, Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences; jgauntt@cvm.tamu.edu; 979-862-4216

Petco Foundation Grants: Supporting The Fight Against Cancer

Story by Dorian Martin

Cannon Lenfield hugs his brown dog Liberty in a field of bluebonnets
Cannon Lenfield and Liberty

Like most college students, Cannon Lenfield ‘20 didn’t have a lot of extra funds on hand when his 9-year-old dog, Liberty, was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2018. Yet the Texas A&M University student proved to be very resourceful in finding ways to pay for his dog’s treatment.

“At that point, I had just paid tuition and couldn’t afford to pay any more at the moment,” explained Lenfield, who didn’t have canine health insurance. “There was no way Liberty was going to be able to receive treatment any longer without help.”

A student worker in VMTH’s Small Animal Hospital Gastrointestinal Laboratory at the time, Lenfield paid for most of Liberty’s treatment on his own, which required him to buckle down financially.

“I definitely couldn’t buy a lot of stupid things anymore; I stopped eating out and stuff like that,” he said. “I knew that it was going to take a lot of money to pay for it so I doubled my hours.”

Lenfield was so committed to ensuring Liberty’s care that after being in a motorcycle accident, he reallocated an insurance payment to help pay the bill.

“My bike still worked so I didn’t need the money,” he said. “I was fine.”

Fortunately, Texas A&M’s Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital (VMTH) was able to step in to offer him support through the Petco Foundation Pet Cancer Treatment grant, which was established in early 2019. This grant provides financial assistance to pet owners who have modest means or whose pets have provided a service to others.

The timing of receiving these funds was especially helpful in Liberty’s case.

A Friend For Life

Lenfield was a boy when his family adopted the mixed-breed puppy from a kill shelter. They decided to name the dog Liberty because she was scheduled to be euthanized on Sept. 11 but was rescued on Sept. 10.

The young boy and pup quickly formed a tight bond and grew even closer in the ensuing years. Lenfield opted to bring her to college with him so he could spend time with her between his classes and studies.

A group of veterinarians and veterinary technicians
The Oncology team at Texas A&M University

“She was definitely my best friend,” he said.

When the dog reached the age of 9, she started displaying signs of ill health.

“While I was on vacation, the dog sitter noticed a lump on both sides of her neck, in her lymph nodes,” the public health graduate said. “I took her to the veterinarian the day that I got back and they told me that she probably had cancer.”

Lenfield immediately turned to the VMTH’s oncology staff—who confirmed the diagnosis—to oversee Liberty’s treatment.

“Obviously, they were going to be the best help that I could get,” he said. “Plus, there’s no one else in the area that offers treatment for lymphoma.”

The Best Treatment For A Best Friend

After deciding to pursue treatment at the VMTH, Lenfield found that that care wasn’t cheap.

“We use a lot of the human-level drugs and equipment, but we don’t have insurance to help support that,” said Dr. Heather Wilson-Robles, an associate professor and Dr. Fred A. and Vola N. Palmer Chair in Comparative Oncology. “We keep our prices as low as we can, but unfortunately, it’s still expensive.”

Liberty initially qualified for a study that helped cover a portion of the initial treatment cost.

“That helped pay for a portion of the costs and then after that, anything additional was on me,” Lenfield said. “I got the Petco funds later, but in between there and then it was all me.”

The VMTH’s staff was excited to be able to offer Lenfield the funds because they were so impressed by his commitment to Liberty.

A brown dog sitting in a yard smiling
Liberty

“He was trying so hard to do everything for this dog. We had sort of piecemealed treatments for him as much as we could—we put her on any studies we could and looked for anything we could do to help him pay for things,” said Wilson-Robles. “Finally, we got to a point where we didn’t have any studies she qualified for and he just wasn’t sure he could afford treatment, so we offered him the Petco funds. He just started sobbing because he was just so grateful because he didn’t have to stop. This dog was his family. He didn’t have any other family in town.”

“I didn’t think happy tears were real until I got the financial assistance to care for Liberty, Lenfield said.

Worth Every Penny

Sadly, despite her treatments, Liberty succumbed to her lymphoma in September 2019, but throughout it all, Lenfield had no doubt that the VMTH veterinary staff was focused on providing Liberty the best care possible.

“I can’t say enough how awesome these people are,” Lenfield said. “They truly are a wonderful group of people and there’s no one else in the world I would’ve rather treated my dog. They are some of the most caring, compassionate and knowledgeable people this world has to offer and will do everything in their power to take care of you and your animal.”

Lenfield said given the chance, he would take the same course of action all over again.

“If you have the money, you should definitely spend it. She was there for me for eight years and I only had to do it for one year. Up until then I only fed her,” he said. “I would never take any of the money back. I spent like $1,500 in the last week she was alive and even that week was worth $1,500.”

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Note: A version of this story originally appeared in the Spring 2020 edition of CVM Today.

For more information about the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, please visit our website at vetmed.tamu.edu or join us on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

Contact Information: Jennifer Gauntt, Director of Communications, Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences; jgauntt@cvm.tamu.edu; 979-862-4216

Setting The Pace

Although Dr. Ashley Saunders regularly implants canine pacemakers, she found herself confronted by multiple challenges as she worked through the night to save Birdie’s life.

Story by Megan Myers

Dr. Ashley Saunders holding Birdie
Dr. Ashley Saunders and Birdie

When Birdie arrived at the Texas A&M Small Animal Hospital (SAH) with an extremely low heart rate, Dr. Ashley Saunders knew that immediate action was necessary to save the 7-year-old Beagle’s life.

As a veterinary cardiologist and professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM), Saunders had seen Birdie’s symptoms many times.

Cases with arrhythmias, or slow, irregular heartbeats, come into the SAH on a weekly basis; if caught in time, the condition is typically fixed with a treatment that is routine to Saunders but often a surprise to the general public—by implanting a pacemaker.

These surgeries are usually minimally invasive with a quick recovery time, but in Birdie’s case, it would take a team of specialists an entire night to heal her heart.

A Miraculous Recovery

In May 2019, Birdie’s owner, Katherine McLeod, noticed that Birdie was acting sluggish and behaving abnormally.

“It was really odd. It was like she was just cranky,” McLeod said. “Over the next couple days, she got pretty lethargic and acted like she didn’t want to go outside or do anything. She was still eating and drinking, but she clearly didn’t feel well.”

McLeod’s local veterinarian in Waco discovered that Birdie had an abnormally slow heartbeat and recommended a medication for treatment. But the medicine only helped for a few days, so when the lethargy returned on a Saturday afternoon, McLeod knew that her best option was to bring Birdie to the SAH, where she entrusted Saunders with Birdie’s care.

“Birdie had a really low heart rate called third-degree AV (atrioventricular) block,” Saunders said. “The middle part of the heart stopped working, so the top and bottom couldn’t communicate well.”

This miscommunication contributed to Birdie’s slow heartbeat, lethargy, and overall unwell feeling.

Almost immediately after the diagnosis, Saunders, fourth-year veterinary student Amanda Tabone, and SAH staff began preparing to implant Birdie’s pacemaker.

ourth-year veterinary student Austin Floyd examines Birdie.
Fourth-year veterinary student Austin Floyd examines Birdie.

“Typically, you want to put a pacemaker in through the jugular vein in the neck,” Saunders said. “That’s the ideal way to do it. So, we took her back to do that, but the pacemaker electrically would not capture her heart. This can happen in rare cases, and we have to quickly adapt.”

Saunders moved to the next option, which involved surgically screwing the pacemaker into Birdie’s heart through her chest. Thanks to help from Dr. Whitney Hinson, a small animal surgery resident, they finally got the pacemaker attached and working properly.

But because of the unexpected issues with the pacemaker, Birdie remained under anesthesia for longer than they initially planned and more complications began to arise.

“We were in surgery into the middle of the night at that point,” Saunders said. “Dr. (Bradley) Simon, the anesthesiologist, stayed with us the entire time, and we ended up having to spend even more time trying to get her to wake up after the surgical procedures because her lungs were slow to reinflate.”

Finally, Birdie improved. By the next day, the pacemaker had brought Birdie’s heart rate back to normal speed and she was able to go home to Waco with her family.

“Dr. Saunders called me that morning and said miracle of miracles, basically,” McLeod said. “She said, ‘You can come get her. She’s doing great.’ You could tell in her voice that she was excited.”

Giving Dogs A New Leash On Life

While Birdie’s case had several setbacks, pacemaker implants are typically much less complicated, according to Saunders. She sees pacemaker cases at least once a week, on average, for a variety of dog breeds and ages.

“Everybody is always stunned when I say I’m a veterinary cardiologist,” Saunders said. “People always say, ‘What? People put pacemakers in their dogs?’ Yes, we can do that, and we do it a lot. That always surprises people.

“It’s exciting with older dogs because people often think their dog is just getting older and they are cautious about spending the money to put a pacemaker in at that age,” Saunders said. “I tell them we’ve paced a lot of older dogs and people frequently tell us that their dog’s energy is way better; what they have attributed to aging was actually low heart rate. I think that encourages people to move forward and then it allows the dogs to have their activity back.”

For Saunders, being able to perform those life-changing procedures, and getting to work with a variety of other SAH services in the process, makes the high-stress career worth it.

“People don’t realize how high-stress it is to be a cardiologist because it feels like life and death all of the time,” Saunders said. “But in the moment, you have to keep thinking because you really have a patient’s life in your hands; you just have to keep problem solving until you get it.

“I think it helps the more experience you have, but you also have to be really level-headed,” she said. “You have to keep making decisions because when you look around, everybody’s looking to you to make them.”

Dr. Ashley Saunders holding Birdie
Dr. Ashley Saunders and Birdie

At the SAH, Saunders finds relief from her stress in the daily student interactions and opportunities to pass on her knowledge to the next generation of veterinarians.

“As you go along in your career, you realize that you were once the one being helped and now you can help other people reach their goals,” Saunders said. “It is really rewarding. The students identify where they want to go and then you can help them along that path.”

Bonding Over Beagles

Tabone was excited to have the opportunity to scrub in for surgery and help care for Birdie post-operatively, especially because of her love for Beagles.

“I was the student on call the weekend Birdie came in,” Tabone said, “and I always joke that if I’m going to get called in, I hope it’s a Beagle, because I have an overwhelming attachment and love for this breed.”

Tabone, who has three of her own Beagles, fell in love with Birdie and was thankful to be involved in her case.

“I enjoyed getting up early every morning to care for Birdie,” Tabone said. “I can’t describe it, but I feel there are patients we’re fortunate to have a special connection with that we can’t predict, and I immediately felt that with Birdie.

“It was incredible to see the transition she made from being very gloomy to being excited and ready to go home with her family,” she said. “I was really lucky that I got called in for this case.”

Birdie’s case was also meaningful for Tabone because it was her first clinical experience and her first opportunity to be hands-on in a surgical setting; when Birdie arrived at the SAH, Tabone and her fellow fourth years had just begun their first week of clinical rotations.

“We had a really unique cardiology rotation, from a student perspective, because all of our residents were gone for their board exams, so it was just the students and Dr. Saunders,” Tabone said. “We got to be one-on-one with her for two weeks, which I found incredibly amazing because of the amount we learned from her and how hands-on we were with all of our cases.”

Tabone also interacted with McLeod and her family to keep them updated on Birdie’s progress. Even after Birdie returned home, Tabone made a habit of checking in with McLeod to make sure Birdie was still feeling well.

Birdie in the SAH lobby
Birdie

“Birdie’s mom mailed a letter to the teaching hospital, and I’ll definitely keep it for my entire career,” Tabone said. “She had the most kind and sincere things to say about me and the work that Dr. Saunders did. I plan to have it framed in my office and when I’m having a not-so-great day, I can read it and think of my experience with Birdie and her family; it’ll forever be great motivation for my career.”

Likewise, McLeod was extremely grateful for Tabone’s genuine love for Birdie and the fact that she went above and beyond in caring for both client and patient.

“Amanda is going to be one heck of a veterinarian,” McLeod said. “Whatever she decides to do in whatever field, I would go to her in a heartbeat just for her bedside manner. She’s going to have a big-time career.”

Going Home An Aggie

Back in Waco, Birdie returned to her normal, active, friendly self within a week.

“Anytime you want to take her on a walk, she gets all fired up about that. She loves her treats and all the different food that she gets,” McLeod said. “She’s great with Skittle (McLeod’s other Beagle); they’re best buds and they’re very happy to be back hanging out together.

“I pray for my dogs every day and I’m so thankful that Birdie’s still here and that she’s healthy,” she said. “It’s just really incredible.”

As a huge Baylor fan, McLeod had no experience with Texas A&M before Birdie’s procedure at the SAH, besides rooting against the Aggies on gameday.

“It was funny. When we went to pick Birdie up, she had her maroon bandages on and what I like to call her ‘Aggie haircut,’ because they had to shave parts of her,” McLeod said. “I said, ‘What? Come on, man, no green and gold bandages?’ The hospital staff said, ‘Hey, you’re at A&M.’

“I said, ‘You know what? Forever we will root for the Aggies—unless they’re playing us, which is very unlikely these days,’” she said. “But it’s funny now—any time I watch football, I say, ‘I’m for A&M. Just for A&M.’”

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Note: This story originally appeared in the Spring 2020 edition of CVM Today.

For more information about the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, please visit our website at vetmed.tamu.edu or join us on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

Contact Information: Jennifer Gauntt, Director of Communications, Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences; jgauntt@cvm.tamu.edu; 979-862-4216

A K-9’s Courage

Search and recovery dog Remington is now enjoying retirement thanks to the care he received from the Small Animal Hospital’s Oncology Service.

Story by Megan Myers

Racheal Crivelli hugging Remington
Rachael Crivelli and Remington

It was a training day like any other when Rachael Crivelli noticed that her dog Remington, a search and recovery canine for the Navasota Fire Department, developed a limp after slipping during an agility course obstacle.

Remington was still limping two days later, but Crivelli’s local veterinarian was unable to provide a diagnosis.

Soon after, Crivelli met Dr. Deb Zoran, a professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM), at an urban search and rescue (USAR) training event and was encouraged to take Remington to the Texas A&M Small Animal Hospital (SAH), where a team of specialists could work to discover the cause of the limp.

After several tests and visits with various SAH services, Remington was diagnosed with a malignant peripheral nerve sheath tumor, a common, but often misdiagnosed, form of cancer.

Crivelli, who had worked with the 8-year-old Labrador Retriever mix for nearly his entire life, was heartbroken by this diagnosis. But knowing how much Remington had done to serve others, she decided to do whatever it would take to get him back on his feet.

“They say a dog will let you know when it’s time to go,” Crivelli said. “Remington was letting me know he had a lot of life to live.”

A Life Of Service

Crivelli felt a call to serve and began her career as a firefighter following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

She rescued Remington when he was only 4 weeks old and soon after began training him for an important role—locating human remains, whether it be a deceased body or the smallest drop of blood, following a crisis like 9/11.

Together, they have volunteered to search for human remains at crime scenes and disaster sites across the state, even contributing to a 30-year-old cold case in South Texas.

Crivelli and Remington in a water rescue boat approaching a flooded car
Remington at work

“We have searched a burnt house that somebody was suspected to have been murdered at and Remington assisted in locating the exact room where the person died,” Crivelli said.

“We deployed during Hurricane Harvey and searched in neighborhoods for anybody who could have been deceased,” she said. “Luckily, we didn’t have to locate anybody during Hurricane Harvey.”

In addition to this work, Remington also served as a mascot for New Caney Fire Department for several years and then for Navasota Fire Department until his cancer diagnosis and subsequent retirement.

“He would go to public relations events to greet members of the public,” Crivelli said. “Having a K-9 allowed firefighters to be more approachable; people or kids who might have too much anxiety to approach firefighters normally were always more comfortable with Remington around.

“He also was a great comfort after making tough calls,” she said. “We would come back from a CPR call or a fatality wreck and it was interesting to see Remington go up to all the firefighters and let them pet him. He knew when people needed loving from a big furry teddy bear. Even on searches, he would comfort the searchers, as well as the victim’s family.

“That’s what I miss most with him being retired,” Crivelli said. “He was a comfort dog more than a search dog at times.”

Fighting For Remington

Rachael Crivelli, Dr. Brandan Wustefeld-Janssens, and Remington outside the Texas A&M Small Animal Hospital
Rachael Crivelli, Dr. Brandan Wustefeld-Janssens, and Remington

Remington’s tumor ran from the spinal canal to where the femoral nerve entered his right hind leg, causing him significant pain and requiring an intensive surgery of several hours for removal.

“This type of tumor is not very common but often misdiagnosed early on because initially, the signs are so gray,” said Dr. Brandan Wustefeld-Janssens, an assistant professor of surgical oncology. “It’s very common for these dogs to be lame for up to six months and have several rounds of X-rays, yet their veterinarians never find anything wrong. Eventually, when they come in here, they are very painful or the atrophy is so severe that it is now obvious.”

Crivelli, a cancer survivor herself, knew that Remington had more life in him and deserved the opportunity to beat his cancer.

“His job was to assist families and law enforcement with justice by helping provide answers,” she said. “He fought for those who couldn’t fight, so I had to give him a chance to fight for himself.”

Wustefeld-Janssens and a team of oncologists and neurologists removed the right side of Remington’s pelvis and his leg, opened the last three intervertebral spaces, and cut the femoral nerve as close to the spinal cord as possible.

“The cutting of the nerve is a really important step because, number one, we hope to remove the entire tumor, and, two, if there are no pain signals back to the spinal cord, these dogs feel much better,” Wustefeld-Janssens said.

After surgery, Remington recovered quickly and was soon cruising on three legs. As is typical for dogs who have undergone an amputation, he improved greatly once the source of his pain was gone.

“Dogs are incredible in that we can remove half of Remington’s pelvis and a big part of his back, and then two weeks later he’s running and jumping over small walls,” Wustefeld-Janssens said.

Supporting Our K-9 Heroes

Jason Johnson, Rachael Crivelli, and Remington in front of a Navasota fire engine
Jason Johnson, Rachael Crivelli, and Remington

Luckily, Crivelli wasn’t alone in her support for Remington. After he was diagnosed, she reached out to Project K-9 Hero, a national nonprofit organization that helps fund medical care for retired police K-9s and military working dogs.

“I purchased a bag of Sport dog food and on the back of it was a story about Project K-9 Hero,” Crivelli said. “It’s for police and military dogs, but Remington’s a search and fire dog. I thought, ‘I’ll just try,’ so I filled out their application and two hours later I got a call from the founder, Jason Johnson, who said Remington was accepted to the program.”

Project K-9 Hero covered Remington’s full surgery cost with funds raised entirely through donations. As a K-9 Hero, Remington will also receive free food and medical care for the rest of his life.

“We felt that because of his age and because of how much life he had left in him, providing the surgery was going to allow him to live a high-quality life for the next couple years, hopefully,” Johnson said. “We’re honored to serve heroes like Remington, heroes who dedicated their careers to protecting our communities.”

Semi-retirement

Remington shaved and with three legs
Remington after his surgery

With 34 deployments and six confirmed finds on his résumé, Remington has earned the right to a relaxing semi-retirement from his search and recovery career.

He now spends most of his time at home with Crivelli’s family, while continuing to greet citizens and help the Navasota Fire Department with public relations. He also is serving as a Project K-9 Hero representative to help other K-9s receive the same support he did.

“I’m grateful for Texas A&M surgeons, students, and technicians, and for Project K-9 Hero’s financial support,” Crivelli said. “I feel I made the right decision to have a very major surgery done. I don’t think he would’ve survived this surgery if we went anywhere else.

“Remington appears to be feeling better than he has in years,” Crivelli said. “He is playing ball, swimming, and just loving life.”

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Note: This story originally appeared in the Spring 2020 edition of CVM Today.

For more information about the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, please visit our website at vetmed.tamu.edu or join us on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

Contact Information: Jennifer Gauntt, Director of Communications, Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences; jgauntt@cvm.tamu.edu; 979-862-4216

Texas A&M LAH Continues To Save Lives During Pandemic

LAH veterinary technician David Kindt Jr. pets Nadar the horse
Nadar and LAH veterinary technician David Kindt Jr.

Story by Aubrey Bloom

Some of the processes have changed around the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences’ (CVM) Large Animal Hospital (LAH) because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but animals and their owners are still getting the great care the hospital is known for.

According to clinical associate professor of veterinary surgery Dr. Joanne Hardy, the recent case of Nadar, a 12-year-old Arabian gelding, highlighted how well the LAH has adjusted.

Nadar’s owner Deborah Hunyady has brought several animals to the LAH in the past, and even had a niece who graduated from the CVM, so when her local veterinarian said he had done all he could do on site and that Nadar needed a hospital, she knew exactly where to take him.

But when she pulled up in early April and saw the outdoor check-in and the trailers from the Texas A&M Veterinary Emergency Team implemented by the CVM to protect employees and clients from COVID-19, she was a little surprised. Another surprise awaited her when she got into the parking lot and was told that she couldn’t accompany Nadar inside like usual because of social distancing guidelines.

“They were very nice about it, and I understood,” she said. “I’m just glad that they were open; if those were the conditions under which they could see Nadar, so be it.”

Nadar came into the LAH with abdominal pain at about 6:30 p.m. and was first seen by Dr. Sarah Thomas, a resident in large animal internal medicine. Thomas, Hardy, and the LAH team decided that Nadar needed surgery as quickly as possible.

Nadar and LAH veterinary technician David Kindt Jr.
Nadar and LAH veterinary technician David Kindt Jr.

“In surgery we found what’s called a small intestinal volvulus, which essentially means the small intestine is twisted on itself 360 degrees,” Hardy said. “Not only can the food not get through because it’s twisted, but it’s also cutting off the blood supply to the intestine, so if you leave it like that, the intestine is going to die.”

In cases like these, veterinarians often find extensive damage and a portion of the intestine usually has to be removed, which can lead to a difficult recovery, but not only were the LAH surgeons able to untwist the intestine, they were able to begin the surgery quick enough that the affected part of the intestine did not need to be removed.

Still, Hardy expected Nadar to have a difficult recovery, which is typical in this kind of surgery.

“When we had a conversation with the owner, I was concerned that the horse was going to be pretty sick afterward,” she said. “Even though we didn’t think the intestine needed to be removed, it was still really bruised and had a lot of change in color, so I thought the horse would be a lot sicker than he was.”

The main concern after this kind of surgery is digestive motility, or how quickly the movement through the digestive system returns to normal, but Nadar didn’t have any problems with that and was back with his owner in only a week.

Hunyady said that even though she couldn’t accompany him inside like normal, she knew Nadar was in good hands and appreciated the constant updates from the LAH team.

“Dr. Thomas talked to me twice a day,” she said. “She got to know Nadar really well, to the point that she could tell from his personality when he wasn’t feeling well and when he was. That she got to know Nadar so well gave me comfort.”

Nadar and LAH veterinary technician David Kindt Jr.
Nadar and LAH veterinary technician David Kindt Jr.

Nadar is already back home in Conroe, Texas, and Hunyady said it was another great experience at the LAH.

“Every day after the surgery he was doing a little better and better,” she said. “I was thrilled. “When this happened, even my local veterinarian said you were smart to take him to A&M. There was no doubt in my mind that was the right choice.”

What she didn’t know, though, was how much things were changing behind the scenes. Between changing operations to limit exposure inside the hospital and the absence of the fourth-year veterinary students on site, the hospital is working with fewer staff than usual. But the staff aren’t letting that impact their care.

Along with Thomas and Hardy, the team included large animal surgery resident Dr. Alyssa Doering, veterinary intern Dr. Chelsea Dunnehoo, senior anesthesiologist Dr. Keila Ida, anesthesia technician Derek Osborne, surgery technician Sarah Adams, and many more from the intensive care unit team.

“The whole team is so important because when we’re dealing with a 1,000-pound animal that has to undergo general anesthesia for surgery, it isn’t something that anyone can do by themselves,” Hardy said. “Everything went really smooth and it was a really good reflection of an amazing team that I get to work with every day.”

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For more information about the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, please visit our website at vetmed.tamu.edu or join us on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

Contact Information: Jennifer Gauntt, Director of CVM Communications, Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences; jgauntt@cvm.tamu.edu; 979-862-4216

VMTH Offers Little ‘Birdie’ Second Chance At A New Life

Story by Madeline Patton

In the months following the death of Dr. Erin Wood’s beloved 16-year-old cat Lita, Wood found comfort in the song “Blackbird” by The Beatles.

“I love that song, and I felt so broken after Lita died; the song lyrics—especially the line ‘Take these broken wings and learn to fly’—had been running through my head,” said Wood, an assistant professor in the Texas A&M University Department of History.

Birdie as a small black kitten
Xena/Birdie

“I love animals, and my animals are my babies; they’re my family here,” Wood said. “After Lita died, I really didn’t know when or if I’d be ready to adopt another cat, or another pet in general. I want to help them all, but I didn’t know if I could go through another loss when I already have three other babies, who I will most likely outlive.”

That changed, however, when she learned about a very sick black kitten, named Xena, that was taken to the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences’ (CVM) Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital (VMTH) in late 2019.

Xena was found very close to death, stuck to a rodent glue trap. She was first taken to an animal hospital in Conroe, but when it became clear that she was very sick and needed extensive care, Xena’s foster brought her to the VMTH, where Xena was found to have had severely decreased blood cell counts, hypoglycemia, hypothermia, internal parasites, and severe anemia, in addition to a several other ailments.

Courtney Bellew, founder and director of the New York-based rescue Special Needs Animal Rescue and Rehabilitation (SNARR), responded to a call for help in a Facebook post about the very sick kitten. Although the rescue is typically a dog rescue, she said, “I couldn’t scroll through and ignore the plea for help when I saw what terrible shape she was in.”

With the support of SNARR and the VMTH’s Casey’s Good Samaritan Feline Fund, Xena was able to get the life-saving treatment she desperately needed.

“In addition to supportive care, assorted diagnostics, and some medications and supplements, Xena needed a blood transfusion because she was lacking in red blood cells and had low blood volume,” said Wood, who became involved in Xena’s case after also learning about the kitten on social media.

A blood transfusion turned out to be a difficult process, as Texas A&M’s veterinarians discovered that Xena has a rare feline blood type, Type B.

Birdie snuggled in a blanketSince Type B feline blood is not commonly available, the veterinarians decided to give her a transfusion of Type B canine blood. This method comes with some risks, but Xena tolerated the transfusion and was able to receive a feline blood transfusion a few days later.

Shortly after Thanksgiving, Wood decided to foster Xena as a way of honoring her beloved Lita while Xena received treatment and continued on the road to recovery. It didn’t take long, though, for Wood to realize that she wanted to make Xena a permanent member of her family.

Because Wood was giving Xena a shot at a new life and a new home, Wood also wanted to give her a new name and knew exactly what that name should be—“Blackbird,” or “Birdie,” for short.

“When I first saw a picture of her, she looked so broken, and the way her limbs were laid out reminded me of wings,” Wood said. “She was such a fighter and so many people fought with her. The lyrics just seemed so fitting. She did have broken wings, but she is definitely flying now.”

Wood knew she would have to be careful during this time, since she already had a house full of pets still at home, including a 5-year-old dog named Turtle and two other cats, Miles and Trodaí.

When bringing a rescue into a new home, it’s important to integrate them slowly and get them acclimated before introducing them to other pets.

“To help with the adjustment for all of the animals and to allow Birdie to finish physically recovering, I took the integration really seriously,” Wood said.

Now, Birdie has made herself at home and is growing more and more comfortable as time goes on.

“It’s been amazing and beautiful to have seen her go from a sick, recovering little one to such a kitten,” Wood said. “She’s doing wonderfully now; she’s gained weight, has good energy, is physically and mentally active, and almost all of her fur has grown in.

Dr. Erin Wood holding Birdie
Dr. Erin Wood and Birdie

“If you didn’t know her backstory, you’d have no idea that just a few months ago, she was critically ill and so close to death. She easily could not be alive if she wasn’t such a fighter and if so many people had not helped her in a multitude of ways.”

Wood said Birdie is sweet, funny, and curious.

“She loves climbing, running around the house, watching birds out the window, and cuddling up with us,” Wood said.

Birdie has even come around to befriending her canine siblings.

“She really enjoys her siblings,” Wood said. “She plays, or rather tries to play, with them all, including my roughly 55-pound dog. She is super curious and has no fear. She started becoming interested in them as soon as she started feeling better, gained energy, and got to be around them. She kind of forced them all to be her friend.”

While Birdie is not meant to replace Lita, Wood feels as though “she’s a beautiful part of Lita’s legacy.”

“She’s added a new piece of love to my broken heart,” Wood said. “She’s such a special little girl, and I’m so happy and lucky that I get to be the one to give her what I hope will be a wonderful life.”

Casey’s Good Samaritan Feline Fund supports injured or sick cats in dire need of care that are brought to the VMTH  by good Samaritans for treatment. To contribute to this fund, click here.

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For more information about the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, please visit our website at vetmed.tamu.edu or join us on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

Contact Information: Jennifer Gauntt, Director of CVM Communications, Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Science; jgauntt@cvm.tamu.edu; 979-862-4216

Texas A&M Radiation Oncology Team Treats Baylor Mascot With Therapy Never Before Used On Bear

While there are two other bear thymoma cases noted in veterinary literature, Judge Lady is the first to be treated with TomoTherapy, a system found at only one other veterinary school in the U.S.

Story by Megan Myers, Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences

 

Lady sitting in the sun at the bears’ off-campus enrichment facility
Lady sitting in the sun at the bears’ off-campus enrichment facility. Photo credit: Matthew Minard/Baylor University

Judge Sue “Lady” Sloan is no ordinary American black bear.

In Waco, Lady holds a distinguished role as one of Baylor University’s two live animal mascots.

She also has the luxury of regular veterinary care from zoological specialists at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences’ (CVM) Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital (VMTH).

When these veterinary specialists discovered a benign mass called a thymoma in Lady’s chest, they teamed up with other VMTH services to deliver a course of treatment never before used on a bear—stereotactic body radiation therapy using the TomoTherapy system.

This treatment has the potential to completely stop the tumor’s growth while also preserving the 17-year-old bear’s quality of life, which is the utmost goal of both her veterinarians and her care team from Baylor.

Lady was diagnosed with her thymoma in summer 2019, when she arrived in College Station for a routine checkup with CVM professor emerita Dr. Sharman Hoppes.

“For a checkup of a large animal like this, we do a full workup including blood work, physical exam under anesthesia, and imaging,” said associate professor Dr. J. Jill Heatley, zoological medicine specialist who joined the case later that summer. “Based on numerous radiographs, we found this mass in the chest. Gwendolyn Levine, one of the radiologists, got a really good sample and one of our clinical pathology specialists told us told us it’s an epithelial inclusive thymoma.”

Lady enters the TomoTherapy system with a veterinary technician by her side
Lady was treated for a benign thymoma with the TomoTherapy System. Photo credit: Matthew Minard/Baylor University

When plans for treatment began, Heatley recruited Dr. Lauren Smith, CVM clinical assistant professor and radiation oncologist, to figure out the best way to deliver precise, effective treatment to Lady’s tumor, which was already larger than a softball.

Only two other cases of thymomas in bears exist in veterinary literature, one of which was found after the bear had died and the other was only found after the bear began showing signs that something was wrong.

“The good news for Lady is that she’s completely asymptomatic; she has no clinical signs of the mass, which means that we caught it early,” Smith said. “Early detection is key with cancer. Being able to intervene at an early point is why we have a very positive outlook for her.”

They decided that Lady’s best treatment option was stereotactic body radiation therapy, which uses many beams of high-energy photons to deliver large doses of radiation to the tumor and spare surrounding tissues.

Although there is no record of this form of treatment ever being used on a bear, Smith said it was a good patient-based treatment option because it allowed Lady to go home between treatments and avoid complications, side effects, or risks associated with surgery.

“This treatment plan allows Lady to spend as little time in the hospital as possible and keeps her quality of life first, as well as gives her the best chance moving forward,” Smith said.

To apply this form of radiation therapy, Lady would need to be anesthetized and placed inside the TomoTherapy system, a unique technology that is only used in veterinary medicine in one other hospital in the world.

A team of VMTH staff prepares Lady to enter the TomoTherapy system.
A team of VMTH staff prepares Lady to enter the TomoTherapy system.

“What makes TomoTherapy unique is that we treat these tumors in a slice-by-slice fashion,” Smith said. “We get millions of opportunities to get a dose into the tumor while avoiding normal tissues; it allows us to have much better and more conformal plans and much tighter doses of distributions to the tumor itself. Where TomoTherapy shines in cancer treatment across the world is treating tumors with complex shapes and geometries.

“Lady’s tumor is sitting right up in front of the heart and between the lungs, so we’re trying to get really high ablative doses to kill this tumor while it’s sitting in between those fairly sensitive, important structures,” she said. “TomoTherapy allows us that opportunity to still treat aggressively with these cancers while maintaining good quality of life. This is probably the first large exotic animal treated with TomoTherapy.”

TomoTherapy offers another benefit in that it has onboard CT imaging capabilities; during Lady’s three doses of treatment, the CT scanner was used to make sure she was in the exact same position every day.

“TomoTherapy allows us to compare the original CT scan with the CT scan of the day to make sure she aligns to the sub-millimeter so that we’re delivering treatment as precisely as possible,” Smith said.

During her treatments, Lady was accompanied and supported by Baylor students in the Baylor Bear Program and Dakota Farquhar-Caddell, associate director of student activities and the Robert L. Reid Director of the Baylor Chamber of Commerce.

“We say in the animal husbandry world that all animals deserve as many good days as possible,” Farquhar-Caddell said. “My hope is that we keep giving Lady the best days we can while she’s with us and that we do so in a way that isn’t stressful or invasive but that really helps keep her healthy and happy.

Radiation oncologist Dr. Michael Deveau watches a screen of colorful scans to monitor Lady as she undergoes her TomoTherapy treatment
Radiation oncologist Dr. Michael Deveau monitors Lady as she undergoes her TomoTherapy treatment. Photo credit: Matthew Minard/Baylor University

“We are really lucky to be this close to Texas A&M,” he said. “The care has been exceptional. I have direct contact with many of the staff on a daily basis; they reach out to me after we get home, checking in on how Lady is doing. We’ve had great communication and conversation with them and we’re really thankful.”

With her three radiation doses now complete, Lady will return to her home at the Bill and Eva Williams Bear Habitat in Waco, a U.S. Department of Agriculture Certified Class C Zoo facility that provides Lady and her sister, Joy, with a natural environment full of enrichment.

“Joy and Lady are a beloved part of our community, and we’re just really grateful that we have excellent care and access to resources and the ability to care for them well,” Farquhar-Caddell said. “In some ways we see our bears as ambassadors for other American black bears. They have probably the largest platform any black bear has in the country, so we use it to educate the community and for important conservation efforts.”

Likewise, Lady’s case will educate veterinarians around the world on the use of stereotactic body radiation therapy and TomoTherapy to treat difficult tumors.

By focusing on her quality of life and finding an innovative way to treat her thymoma, Lady’s veterinarians and Baylor care team have taken a monumental step forward in the veterinary care of large exotic animals.

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For more information about the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, please visit our website at vetmed.tamu.edu or join us on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

Contact Information: Jennifer Gauntt, Interim Director of Communications, Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Science; jgauntt@cvm.tamu.edu; 979-862-4216

Saving Sybil

Story by Megan Myers

When Sybil the camel arrived at the Texas A&M Large Animal Hospital with a serious hip injury, very few believed that a successful surgery would be possible. Luckily, thanks to the faith of her owners and skill of her surgical team, Sybil has become one of the first camels to fully recover from a dislocated hip.

The Texas A&M Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital’s (VMTH) Large Animal Hospital (LAH) may mostly treat horses and farm animals, but other species are also seen surprisingly often, including a large number of camels that live as pets on Texas ranches.

Dr. Kati Glass, in a maroon top and blue jeans, holds the halter to Sybil the camel in a grassy fieldWhen Sybil, a 7-year-old dromedary (one-humped) camel, arrived at the LAH, she could barely walk on her left hind leg. Radiographs quickly revealed the problem—Sybil’s hip joint was dislocated out of its socket and her femur had moved far away from her pelvis.

“This coxofemoral luxation diagnosis was heartbreaking because the options for treatment are limited and prognosis is poor for adult large animals with this condition,” said Dr. Kati Glass, a clinical assistant professor in large animal surgery. “Basically, the bigger the animal, the harder it is to get the hip back in its socket and the harder it is to keep it there.”

Glass consulted with other veterinary surgeons to discuss Sybil’s predicament, but their recommendations were disheartening. The consensus was that there was very little chance for surgery to be successful, meaning that Sybil would likely live a life of discomfort because of the injury and, therefore, should be put down.

Sybil’s owner, Dr. Ron McMurry, however, insisted that Glass and her team do whatever they could to try to save Sybil’s life.

“It felt like I was in Las Vegas and I had bet my last hundred dollars,” McMurry said, “but I felt the need to try something.”

McMurry may have felt nervous going into surgery, but he was also very optimistic that Glass and her team would be able to fix Sybil’s hip.

“Dr. McMurry gave us the chance to go to surgery and to move forward if things went well, but also to be mindful of her care and comfort in that if we weren’t successful, then we knew that we had tried,” Glass said. “That put us in a position to give it our all because without the surgery, we knew Sybil didn’t have a good chance at a comfortable life; so, really, we didn’t have much to lose.”

Joined by large animal surgery residents Drs. Lauren Richardson and Alyssa Doering, fourth-year veterinary students Shanna Keshvari and Amanda Armendariz, and a team of anesthesia specialists—including Drs. Mauricio Lepiz and Courtney Baetge, with anesthesia resident Dr. Sarah Jarosinski—Glass began Sybil’s surgery.

Finally, just as the team was becoming fearful that their efforts may not be successful, the joint fell back into place with a loud pop.

“It was this huge, celebratory moment,” Glass said. “Then, the even more difficult part started for us as surgeons, because then I knew I had to do something to try to keep it there.”

She secured the joint in place with screws and a stainless-steel cable, but radiographs taken two days after surgery showed that the implants had broken. Thankfully, despite the failure of the cable, Sybil’s hip was still in place.

Dr. Kati Glass, in a maroon top and blue jeans, gives a thumbs up and holds the halter to Sybil the camel in a grassy field, while Sybil looks into the cameraGlass and her team were thrilled with this success. Also thrilling was the fact that Sybil was bright, eating, and recovering smoothly.

They also had one other reason to celebrate—Sybil was expecting a baby.

“We knew at the time of surgery that she had been recently bred, but we were focused on saving Sybil’s life at that time,” Glass said. “After surgery, as we saw Sybil recovering, we confirmed that she was still pregnant!”

For now, Sybil is continuing her rest and rehabilitation at the LAH.

Glass said Sybil has been the perfect patient, especially since she is trained to lay down, stand up, and move around on command. During her time at the LAH, Sybil used her charm on everyone she met, even influencing veterinary students to throw her a camel-themed baby shower.

For Glass, the McMurry family’s commitment was the critical component that allowed the chance to save Sybil’s life and to learn valuable information about treating other camels with hip dislocations.

“Every time we have the opportunity to take a chance on a procedure like this, we learn something,” Glass said. “What I’ve learned throughout Sybil’s care will help me even more in the next case.”

Glass is hopeful that when a similar case comes to her or another veterinarian in the future, they can provide the owner with more options and be more optimistic about the potential outcome.

“Sybil’s success gives us that opportunity to say it can work and we should try,” she said.

Sybil will soon return to her ranch in Jasper, Texas, to finishing recovering and have her baby at home.

While it’s common for hips to reluxate (or come back out of socket) in large animals after surgery, Glass said that with each day that passes, she is more optimistic about the joint staying in place for the rest of Sybil’s life.

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Contact Information: Jennifer Gauntt, Interim Director of CVM Communications, Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Science; jgauntt@cvm.tamu.edu; 979-862-4216