Endangered Snake Beats Skin Cancer

Skin cancer is all too prevalent among humans — considering the fact that an estimated one in five people in the U.S. will develop the disease in their lifetime — but snakes?

According to officials at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, MedVet Medical and Cancer Centers for Pets has given a state-endangered plains garter snake a unique, radiation procedure to treat its skin cancer.

Dr. Deborah Prescott, MedVet’s Oncology Specialty Leader and Radiation Oncologist, said that although it’s not unusual for animals to develop skin cancer, there’s little information available about melanomas in snakes, which created several challenges. For instance, veterinarians had to figure out how to keep the snake still while treating her. They couldn’t sedate her, as it would have been dangerous given her small size. They couldn’t hold her down, either, since nobody could enter the room during treatment. Eventually, they placed the patient into a tube, which solved the issue.

“The snake would have died without treatment,” said Dr. Randy Junge, Vice President of Animal Health at the Columbus Zoo. “I’m proud of the length we are able to go for some of these smaller creatures that might not get the attention that an elephant or tiger would, but are no less important.”

The procedure provided a way for the snake to continue breeding, and to help restore Ohio’s wild population of the garter snake, which is one of four garter snake species in Ohio, but the only one that’s endangered. The species resides in tall grass prairies, which have vanished by 99% throughout the nation.

“In order to save the few prairies we have left in Ohio, we need to save the important animals that reside within these unique ecosystems,” said Becky Ellsworth. Assistant Curator. “The garter snakes fill the niche of preying on insects, worms, snails, slugs, amphibians, fish and small rodents. They are an important cog in the ecosystem wheel.”

Luckily, the treatment was a success. Following her procedure, the garter snake gave birth to a live litter of 12 more snakes.

“It is another example of how far reptile medicine has come,” said Dr. Junge. “We are able to apply cutting edge treatments on nearly any animal in our care.”


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