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  • Writer's pictureNewnham Court Vets Editor

Tiny the Lion

Updated: Jul 9, 2018

The perils of hairballs are all apparent even for the mightiest of cats!

Tiny was carried in and placed on his back on a double length operating table.

Tiny is a 6 yr old adult male African lion, weighing around 200kg, living a happy life in the company of his two brothers in the excellent environment of the Wildlife Heritage Foundation at Marley Farm, Smarden.

John Kenward, a senior vet at PETS Ltd, Newnham Court, Maidstone, was asked to assess Tiny on the 16th February 2009 as he was unwell. He had become dull and lethargic since his last feed a few days earlier and was vomiting frequently. He was no longer passing his motions and had lost all interest in his food.

It is not possible to handle an awake adult lion, even if he is very ill, but much diagnostic information can be gained from close observation and consideration of the patient’s history. The keepers had observed Tiny vomiting and retrieved from the unpleasant pile a large elongated hairball consisting of tightly matted hair from a horse’s tail or mane.This was consistent with the diet of horse meat the lions had received the previous week. Attempts to get Tiny to take liquid paraffin to move on a possible blockage were fruitless.

The next day Tiny was no better. John the vet decided that another day or two of waiting could prove disastrous for Tiny if he had a foreign body stuck in his stomach or intestine. At 5 pm John anaesthetised Tiny using drugs delivered by dart and blowpipe. A large  and efficient team from the Wildlife heritage Foundation loaded him into a big cat travelling crate and brought him, still asleep in his crate in the back of a large van, to the PETS Veterinary Hospital at Newnham Court. The surgical team, lead by Mark Fosbery (surgeon) and Head Nurse Rita Johnson (anaesthetist), who had been prewarned by John, swung into action.

Tiny was carried in and placed on his back on a double length operating table, a tube was passed into his windpipe and he was safely on the “gas anaesthetic”. Meanwhile Tiny’s blood was tested and his vein was catheterised for his fluid therapy. Mark examined Tiny’s abdomen using a powerful ultrasound scanner, the results of this together with the blood test results obtained a few minutes earlier, confirmed the presence of a gastric foreign body. Mark and John decided to operate and to perform a “laparotomy”. They were assisted by Rita and Donna (a surgical nurse), who prepared the operation site while the surgeons scrubbed up.

Once inside Tiny’s abdomen, Mark found a large doughy mass in the stomach This was removed through an enterotomy procedure and turned out to be another large ball of horse hair. Further along in the small intestine, a large “concertina’d” section of very fragile and inflammed gut was found. On closer examination this was found to be on the point of perforation in several places. This length of gut, later measured at about 1 metre fully extended, was removed by an enterectomy procedure and the two remaining healthy ends of gut joined together by “end-to-end” anastomosis. No other problems were found in the abdomen so Tiny was stitched up and, having received 5 litres of fluid intravenously was carried back on a stretcher by 8 staff from Wildlife Heritage Foundation to the crate in the van where John gave him a final check, some antibiotics and pain control by injection, and then started the wake-up process with another injection.

By the time he was returned to his pen at the Foundation at around 9.30 pm, Tiny was sufficiently awake to roll briefly onto his front and look around. But it was not until the next morning that he was able to get up and to walk stiffly back into the comfort of his den.

There followed a week of intensive observation and twice daily veterinary attendance. Tiny would eat nothing for the first few days and so had to receive his medications by dart and blowpipe every day, a very unpleasant experience for him. He was initially very dull and John had concerns that he might be developing an abdominal infection. John and Mark were standing by for the first few days to anaesthetise Tiny again, in order to re-scan if he became very ill. But soon Beccy and Fraser, keepers at the Foundation, had found a way of medicating Tiny as he started to feel better and roar at them through the bars of the den- the drugs were simply squirted into his mouth when he opened it to roar. Brave keepers!

A somewhat nervewracking week later, during which Beccy and Fraser had had very little sleep, Tiny had started to eat small pieces of meat and so it was possible to continue medication for a few days through this means.

A few days later he had passed a fresh healthy motion and was strong enough to be allowed back into the large compound with his brothers. Everyone was worried that perhaps the lions would have an enormous fight because of Tiny’s strange (medicinal) smell or just because he was weaker. Our fears were unfounded, after a bit of roaring and sniffing about, they all settled down as though nothing had happened’

Congratulations to the magnificent staff at the Wildlife Heritage Foundation at Marley Farm for their acute observation and continuous intensive care, and to the veterinary team at Newnham Court. Without this monumental combined effort, we know that Tiny would have died of perforated intestine and peritonitis a few days later.


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