Stem Cell Therapy for a Snow Leopard

Stem Cell Therapy for a Snow Leopard

Taronga Zoo used fat-derived stem cell therapy on a Snow Leopard’s arthritic knee, becoming the first zoo in Australia to use this technology on a big cat. 

The procedure is being trialled to slow the advancement of osteoarthritis in the right knee joint of Taronga’s five year old female Snow Leopard, ‘Kamala’.

Taronga Zoo Veterinarian, Kimberly Vinette Herrin, said: “Over the last few years we have been treating Kamala for osteoarthritis, but have been limited in slowing its progression.”

“Early experimental results from adipose-derived or fat derived stem cell therapy have shown a decrease in pain and inflammation in joints of domestic cats and dogs. After consultation with numerous specialists and researching the treatment’s potential to alleviate osteoarthritis, we decided to try the technique on Kamala,” said Kimberly.

A team of specialists from Regeneus Animal Health Veterinary Specialist Centre, and Taronga Wildlife Hospital staff carried out the procedure which involved harvesting fat from the Snow Leopard’s abdomen, processing it in the Zoo laboratory to separate the cellular components from the connective tissue and then injecting it into the arthritic joint of the exquisite big cat.

“This medical technology is still very new, but unlike major corrective surgery it is relatively non-invasive which is a big consideration when working with wild animals.” 

“Since many of the animals in our care are highly endangered, we try to minimise the amount of procedures they have and length of time they are under anaesthesia. With this treatment, the preparation process takes under 120 minutes and very high numbers of stem cells can be collected. These cells can be used to treat multiple joints simultaneously or stored frozen for future use.”

“By using this ground-breaking medical technique we are hoping it will slow down the progression of arthritis in Kamala, and she will be able to manoeuvre around the Zoo’s Snow Leopard Mountain with much more agility,” said Kimberly.

The use of adipose-derived stem cells for tissue regeneration and repair is a rapidly developing medical technique for both human and veterinary patients. It is not limited to arthritis management but may offer new treatments for a wide spectrum of disorders with potential benefits in bone and tendon healing, repair of renal, pancreatic and neurologic ailments.

The procedure is believed to be a ‘first’ in the zoo world and Kamala will be monitored closely over the preceding months by the Zoo’s Carnivore Keepers and veterinary team to determine if the therapy improves her mobility and decreases joint pain.

Kamala whose name means ‘goddess’ was born at Taronga Zoo in October 2005, along with male, ‘Sabu’ as part of a breeding program for their endangered species.

It is estimated that only between 2500-7000 Snow Leopards are left in the wild today with approximately 600-700 in zoos around the world.  The Snow Leopard is protected by the Conventional Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) which makes trafficking live cats, fur or body parts illegal in signatory countries.

The Snow Leopard has especially been a target with poachers because of their luxuriant grey spotted, thick fur, often used to make a traditional Tbertan coat called a ‘chuba’.