Pittsburgh Zoo Sea Lion Receives Cancer Treatment From PetCure Oncology

Pittsburgh (August, 2018)— A new, innovative and effective cancer treatment is helping save the life of the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium’s 23-year-old California sea lion, Zoey.

Through the Zoo’s partnership with the Pittsburgh Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Center (PVSEC) and PetCure Oncology, Zoey received stereotactic radiation, an advanced form of radiation therapy utilized by PetCure Oncology.

Stereotactic radiation (SRS/SRT) attacks cancerous tissue with unprecedented precision, destroying it with minimal damage to surrounding organs. This novel treatment enables veterinary radiation oncologists to target cancer in delicate locations such as the brain or mouth. The treatment is administered in only one to three sessions, reducing the need for prolonged multiple treatment sessions by up to 95 percent.



Zoey’s story began a few months ago when zookeepers noticed that her appetite had become erratic. When Zoey opened her mouth during a training session, they discovered a small red lesion on the roof of her mouth. The Zoo’s veterinary staff was alerted and they started her on medications, but the lesion continued to progress in size and severity. Zoey was anesthetized for an exam and Dr. Ginger Sturgeon, Director of Animal Health, discovered the lesion had progressed. The tissue loss extended up into Zoey’s nasal cavity. Unfortunately, the biopsied tissue samples confirmed that Zoey had an aggressive type of cancer called oral squamous cell carcinoma.

Dr. Sturgeon consulted with PVSEC veterinary oncologist Dr. Bridget Urie and Dr. Kelsey Pohlmann, a radiation oncologist from PetCure Oncology to discuss possible treatment plans for Zoey. Multiple factors – including the location of the cancer in Zoey’s mouth, the need for a single anesthesia treatment event, and Zoey’s necessary exposure to an aquatic environment – led to all partners agreeing that stereotactic radiation therapy was the best option for Zoey.

“When performing diagnostics and administering treatments in Zoo medicine, 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 group – all the while keeping the animal’s best interests in mind,” says Dr. Sturgeon. “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.”

On Tuesday, August 21, Dr. Sturgeon and the Zoo team transported Zoey to PVSEC to perform a CT scan of her skull and thorax to map the tumor and check for metastasis. With the green light from her scans, Zoey then received stereotactic radiation of her oral squamous cell carcinoma at PetCure Oncology at the North Hills PVSEC Hospital. Within a day, she was back to swimming with the other sea lions at the Zoo.

Today, Zoey is doing well. She is eating her full diet and participating in daily training sessions with gusto. Moving forward, the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium keepers and veterinary team will monitor Zoey closely and will continue her medications to ensure that she has the best chance for beating the cancer while living a happy, healthy life. The Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium thanks PVSEC and PetCure Oncology for donating their time and services.

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