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Surgery aims to help big cat overcome arthritis

by JOBIN PANICKER

WFAA

Posted on March 21, 2013 at 8:52 AM

Updated Tuesday, Nov 12 at 11:46 AM

WYLIE — For Vicky Keahey, the suffering is not unlike what a mother experiences when seeing a sick child.

In this case, she was watching her 13-year-old Siberian tiger, Tacoma, struggle to walk... clearly not his usual active self.

"Instead of taking part in life, he's sitting there watching life," said Keahey, president and CEO of In-Sync Exotics Wildlife Rescue and Education Center in Wylie.

Tacoma mostly laid down because standing up caused a lot of discomfort. A veterinarian told WFAA that Tacoma suffers chronic degenerative arthritis in the hips, and moving even a few steps is a burden.

With little use of the legs, the vet said his muscles had wasted.

"I hurt really hard for him. It makes me feel... I can't lose this cat!" Keahey said.

So she took a gamble and connected with Canadian doctors who perform a rare procedure.

"All we're doing is taking away the sensation associated with the arthritis there," explained Dr. Doug Whiteside.

It's called a surgical denervation; cutting off the pain signals to the brain. Tacoma was transported to a clinic in Wylie for the surgery, where doctors worked for 90 minutes.

Tacoma is the sixth tiger in North America to have this surgery. It has been only mildly successful in dogs, but doctors say it is gaining traction in big cats. The hope is Tacoma starts using his legs again.

"You can't have a tiger that can't get up. That would be a death sentence for him," said veterinarian Dr. Sharmin Hoppes.

Keahey shared with News 8 the latest photos of Tacoma standing and moving on his feet. Dr. Hoppes said without surgery, Tacoma would have had six months to live.

Keahey is very hopeful hopeful Tacoma can now enjoy life again back at the rescue center in Wylie.

E-mail jpanicker@wfaa.com

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