Pittsburgh Zoo elephant has rare autoimmune disease

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The Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium needs to solve a big mystery. A 3,700-pound mystery, to be exact.

A 7-year-old bull elephant named Umasai has been diagnosed with an extremely rare autoimmune disease, and his symptoms have been baffling his caretakers.

Ginger Takle, director of animal health at the zoo, said she is not aware of any other documented cases of autoimmune disease in elephants.

Zoo tending to elephant with autoimmune disorder

An elephant at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium is being treated for an autoimmune disorder. The elephant, Umasai, is responding favorably to treatment, according to zoo officials. (Video by Nate Guidry; 8/2/2013)

"Certainly we are aware of documented cases in dogs and cats and most certainly people, but for right now, it looks pretty rare in elephants," she said.

Willie Theison, elephant program manager at the Pittsburgh Zoo, said he noticed Umasai's strange behavior about a year ago. Elephants spend most of their time on their feet, but Umasai would lie down for extended periods of time and couldn't get up when he tried.

"We actually had to go in and assist him to his feet," Mr. Theison said. "By all indications, once he got to his feet, he chased everyone out of the stall, he was fine. His attitude was normal.

"So we were really kind of confused by the situation, and a month later, he went down again."

Normally, Mr. Theison said, Umasai is feisty and playful, the only hot-shot male alongside his seven female herd members. As the energetic young male started to avoid his playmates, struggled to stand and developed nasty skin lesions, the elephant's keepers became even more concerned.

"Usually when you come by the door, the first thing he does is run over, and he throws something at you," Mr. Theison said. "We noticed that he was kind of walking by the stall like he was in his own little world and he just wanted to be left alone. That kind of tipped us to something's not right."

Months of tests confirmed Umasai's disease. His immune system is attacking itself, Ms. Takle explained, which makes him weaker and more susceptible to infection. Right now, he is being treated with steroids for the disease and antibiotics for his skin lesions. Umasai gets baths twice a day to keep the lesions clean and he receives a topical ointment to the skin wounds.

Right now, that's all the zookeepers can do along with watching Umasai's blood work and waiting until his immune system bounces back. The disease is not contagious, so the youngster continues to live and play in his exhibit, and he's more energetic now that he's being treated.

Although the patient is responding well to the steroids, Mr. Theison said he is concerned that Umasai continues to have trouble standing after lying down, especially on the right side of his body. Keepers still have to lift the heavy elephant from the ground to help him up sometimes, he said.

"It's an odd little issue we're trying to figure out," Mr. Theison said. "What's that problem? Is it related to the autoimmune problem, or is it something completely different?"

Ms. Takle said she can't predict a time for his recovery, especially when she has never seen this disease in elephants.

"Some animals will get over their autoimmune disease in a couple weeks, a couple months," Ms. Takle said. "Other animals will need to be on treatment for their entire life.

"So right now, we don't know which case Umasai's going to fall into."

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Megan Doyle: mdoyle@post-gazette.com. This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To log in or subscribe, go to: http://press.post-gazette.com/ First Published August 1, 2013 9:30 PM


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