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Pittsburgh Zoo sea lion Zoey receives groundbreaking cancer treatment

Megan Guza
| Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018, 12:27 p.m.

Pittsburgh Zoo’s 23-year-old sea lion, Zoey, is undergoing a groundbreaking type of radiation therapy for oral cancer that zookeepers discovered earlier this year, zoo officials said Wednesday.

Zookeepers became worried when they noticed Zoey’s appetite becoming erratic, spokeswoman Tracy Gray said in a statement. They spotted a red lesion on the roof of her mouth, which grew in size and severity until it was discovered to be an aggressive type of cancer – oral squamous cell carcinoma.

Specialists from the Pittsburgh Veterinary Specialty Emergency Center and PetCare Oncology, a national cancer care provider for pets, stepped in to help provide specialty treatment, Gray said.

The specialized radiation treatment, called stereotactic radiation, targets cancer with “unprecedented precision,” zoo officials said, meaning there is minimal damage to the surrounding tissue. This is particularly important when it involves delicate areas, such as the mouth or brain, officials said.

“We are oftentimes constrained by the size of the animal, the need for anesthesia to ensure safe handling for both the staff and the patient and the animal’s need to return quickly to their ground,” said Dr. Ginger Sturgeon, director of animal health at Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium.

In this case, that included Zoey’s size and her need to be in the water, Sturgeon said.

“With this cutting edge therapy, we were presented with a treatment that could satisfy all of those factors and give us a chance to save Zoey’s life,” she said.

Together with the veterinary specialists, Zoey’s tumor was mapped during an Aug. 21 CT scan and she received one treatment of sterotactic radiation, Gray said. Within a day, she was back in the water with the zoo’s other sea lions.

The precision of the treatment means animals generally need only one to three treatments, Gray said.

Zoey has returned to eating her full diet and is participating in training sessions “with gusto,” zoo officials said. She will continue taking medications as cancer treatment.

Megan Guza is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Megan at 412-380-8519, mguza@tribweb.com or via Twitter @meganguzaTrib.

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