KUSA - Who would have thought that an animal covered in scales could get skin cancer?
It happened to a snake at the Denver Zoo.
The zoo's 18-year old King Cobra was diagnosed with lymphosarcoma cancer after his zookeeper, Tim Trout, noticed he had a weird spot on his scales and had lost weight.
Trout arrived at the zoo just months before the cobra arrived in January 2000.
"He came to us as just a tiny baby, maybe only three feet long - not much bigger around than a pinky finger," said Trout.
So when he noticed those symptoms, he knew he needed to get the snake checked out.
"I noticed a pinkish-purple circle appear about three or four feet down from his head. And, by itself, I might not have been too concerned because sometimes weird things show up, they shed, and it's gone, but he also lost body condition. He wasn't skinny, but with no change with how I had been caring for him, a little bit of loss in body weight and a mark I didn't know about made me want to get the veterinarians involved," said Trout.
Trout says there is a treatment for skin cancer in some mammals, but it's not meant for reptiles.
"This is a cancer where there is a treatment in the veterinary field used in dogs and cats, so we're flying blind in a king cobra. As far as we know, it's never been done in a snake before, maybe not even a reptile," said Trout.
So the zoo came up with their own treatment plan for the 12-and-a-half foot cobra, by tweaking the treatment plan used for domestic cats.
They are inserting chemo pills into rats the staff feeds the snake, and it appears to be working.
"It's exciting that we're actually attempting to treat this and I don't want to get overly optimistic, I'm guarded, but you know the blood work so far shows that we're seeing improvements," said Trout.
Trout says treating a snake as large, powerful, and potentially lethal is challenging, but worth the time and effort.
"There's never been a question, there's not a cost benefit analysis that's ever been talked about, it's like it's got cancer - there's a medication for it - let's get it," he said. 'It's just kind of understood if there is something we can do - we're going to do it."
The cobra has had three doses of chemo so far. Zookeepers plan to continue the treatments until the snake, hopefully, enters remission.
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