At 14 feet tall and nearly 1,600 pounds, Goody is an unusual arthritis patient. She’s also a reticulated giraffe and a celebrity of sorts at the Sacramento Zoo.
In addition to the attention and treats she gets from zoo visitors at the feeding deck of the giraffe exhibit, behind the scenes she receives care from the zoo’s veterinarians and keepers to manager her condition.
Goody is about a month away from turning 19. Giraffes usually live into their mid-20s.
“It'd be very similar to you or I with a grandmother who has arthritis,” said Dr. Ray Wack, zoo veterinary director.
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Like human patients, Goody receives medication to manage her arthritis. She takes meloxicam, which helps reduce swelling, stiffness and pain in humans and animals. The keepers feed it to her in a banana.
She also takes glucosamine, a commonly used joint supplement, and occasionally analgesics for pain relief when her arthritis flares up.
But her keepers didn’t want to rely on medication alone, so she also receives a host of alternative treatments from acupuncture to laser therapy and wears a shoe and an anklet equipped with a Fitbit-like activity tracker.
Goody was born with a condition that caused the bones of her feet to be misaligned. She eventually developed osteoarthritis, the type that athletes often experience when the cartilage in their joints wears down with use.
Arthritis is a common problem for geriatric giraffes. Because of their size, they put a lot of weight on their joints and their instinct to watch out for predators means they don’t rest much.
The arthritis affected Goody worst in her front left fetlock, a giraffe equivalent of an ankle. This has caused many problems for Goody because animals such as cows, horses and giraffes put about 70 percent of their weight on their front legs, said Melissa McCartney, lead ungulate zookeeper.
About four years ago, the zoo staff noticed things were getting worse. Goody also had injured her other front leg and was putting more weight on the misaligned one. The zoo staff started to think creatively about therapies to help her.
Goody has a complex treatment plan to keep her everyday giraffe routine going unimpeded.
Goody has swelling tissue and poor circulation in that leg, a complication of the arthritis. To work on the circulation, every week Goody receives laser therapy, a treatment mostly used on animals in which a low-power laser is used to stimulate the cells. She also spends some time each week resting her foot on a mat that provides electromagnetic pulses.
These two treatments are mostly used in animals. As far as humans, “they are fairly new and efficacy is not well established,” Wack said.
Goody also receives acupuncture once a week. And every day, her keepers apply cold compresses or ice her joints to help minimize inflammation.
The way that Goody was walking made her keepers cringe. “It was pretty shocking to see her take these steps and watch everything (in her foot) kind of shimmy around,” McCartney said.
And because of her strange gait, she dragged her left foot around and wore her hoof abnormally.
So a couple of years ago, her keepers and veterinarian started working on a shoe that would help Goody walk more normally.
With the help of a farrier, a person who shoes horses, they started with a plate that would help with stability and an insole of sorts to make it more level. They figured out how to wrap it to her foot so it would stay secure.
McCartney recalls the first time they tried it out.
“She just took that first step, and you could tell it was going to stay stable, and then she just trucked off.”
But Goody is hard on her shoes, McCartney said. She saw it as an inconvenience to Goody that they had to change the wrapping every day. They went to great lengths to find a way to secure the shoe, from trying similar products for horses to custom-made wraps sewn by an Amish man in upstate New York.
All the therapy has helped. Goody’s foot has taken on a more normal shape and now her keepers can work with off-the-shelf shoes and build the parts that give her foot the right stability.
To get a handle on how she’s doing, the keepers outfitted her with an activity tracker.
“It's hard to ask Goody ‘Are you having a good day? … Is everything working?’ But if we look at that data from the Fitbit, we can tell,” McCartney said.
Goody’s sister Skye also wears one so the keepers can compare their activity levels. If Goody’s moving around a lot less, there might be a problem they need to address.
The keepers and veterinarians were surprised at how well Goody has been doing.
“She's made a lot of improvement that I honestly didn’t expect. I thought we'd just be helping her maintain her condition as it progressed. Instead we’re seeing that it’s not a very rapid progression,” McCartney said.
Also surprising is the extent to which Goody participates in her treatments the way a keeper might expect a chimpanzee, lion, or bear might. McCartney shows Goody the shoe and the giraffe picks up her foot so she can put it on.
“You’re not going to make a 1,600-pound animal that’s 14 feet tall do anything they don’t want to do. She seems to enjoy the attention that comes from all the therapies,” McCartney said.
“She lives up to her name. ‘Goody’ fits.”