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Giant Donkey with Laminitis Saved by Sling and Surgery

By: Louisa Shepard Date: May 14, 2015

With great sadness, Susan Yates walked out of the barn and headed to the house to call the vet. It was time to put down the big donkey she had just adopted five days earlier.

Emaciated, lame, and riddled with lice, Bethany was lying in the stall, and could not get up. Yates had left the stall door open when she went for the phone. “We thought she would die there,” she said.

Dr. Charlene Noll feeding Bethany in her stall at New Bolton Center

But coming back to the barn, Yates was astonished. “She had crawled out of the stall and halfway up the aisle on her belly,” Yates recalled. “She was like: Come on guys. I’m not quitting, so you’re not quitting.”

Yates called her husband, Charles, and, along with their vet, their equine dentist, and barn staff, they managed to roll Bethany’s huge frame onto a tarp, and into the trailer.

They brought Bethany to New Bolton Center from their horse farm in Westminster, Maryland.

“New Bolton is my place of choice when things can’t be done here at home,” Yates said. “I feel like I can rely on New Bolton Center to get honest appraisals of what can, and can’t, be done.”

Trying to Save Bethany

The prognosis was not good. An eight-year-old Mammoth jenny, Bethany is a giant donkey. Her body condition score was graded as poor, a 1 out of 5.

Several veterinarians, nurses, and students were ready to take the emergency case on that January day when Bethany arrived. Once they dragged her to the stall on a specially designed plastic glide sled, they then put her in a sling to support her to stand. The sling straps were slid under her chest and hindquarters and attached to an electric hoist, and Bethany was gradually raised off the ground.

Bethany being brought to New Bolton Center

“This was a tense moment for everyone. It can be very dangerous with a donkey that size, if she struggles or panics as she is being lifted,” said Dr. Rose Nolen-Walston, Assistant Professor of Large Animal Internal Medicine, and the lead clinician on the case. 

“Additionally, once she was raised to standing height, if she couldn’t bear weight on her limbs and support herself, her chance of survival was much less,” Nolen-Walston said.

As the hoist clanked upwards, the team watched with anticipation to see if she would make an attempt to stand. For a few seconds she dangled limply in the sling as her team urged her to make an effort. Seconds ticked on, and the atmosphere grew tenser. But just as they were about to admit defeat and lower her back to the ground, Bethany took a jump forward and landed on all four limbs.

“She was standing weakly, but with an air of clear, donkey stubbornness that suggested she wasn’t planning on giving up any time soon,” Nolen-Walston said.

Bethany stood for just an hour that first day, but her caretakers were delighted. “We hoisted her up to stand when she was down for longer than four hours at a time, and gave her a couple of days to see if food and nursing care would pick her up,” said Dr. Charlene Noll, an intern who was part of the team caring for Bethany.

Bethany taking a rest in her stall

New Bolton Center clinicians and nurses cared for her around the clock, making sure she was eating and drinking, treating her coat for the itchy lice, cleaning several sores on her sides. She was given anti-inflammatory, antibiotic, and pain medications. She could barely walk around the stall, weakly shuffling her hind hooves, but only when supported by the sling.

Her heart rate was unusually high, an indicator of pain in horses. The team tried to find the source of her pain, Noll said, but it was difficult. They performed radiographs in the stall because it was too dangerous to try to move her. 

“We were able to see signs of sinking in her hind feet,” Noll said.

Specifically, the radiographs showed that the pedal bone of the left hind was markedly sunken in the hoof capsule, and, similarly, the right hind also showed evidence of sinking, although not to the same degree. There was also some rotation of the pedal bones in both hind limbs. In addition, there was contraction of the coffin joints, the right hind more severe than the left.

The diagnosis was clear: Bethany was suffering from laminitis.

Surgery or Sleep

A consultation with Dr. Barbara Dallap Schaer and Dr. Suzanne Stewart gave Yates an option. Surgery: a tenotomy of the deep digital flexor tendons on both hind legs, something that has been shown to help in severe cases of laminitis in horses, specifically those with bones that are rotating.

Chief Farrier Pat Reilly gives Bethany special shoes after her surgeryThe chance of success? Maybe 30 percent, because the condition was so severe.

“It was do the surgery, or put her to sleep,” Yates said. “We chose to do the surgery. We’d come this far. We weren’t going to stop.”

Stewart, a Fellow in Surgery and Research, performed the minimally invasive surgery, done while the animal is standing, under sedation.

“Bethany’s tendons were really tight. So to help make her more comfortable, and for her foot to be at a more normal angle, we cut the tendons,” Stewart said. “That releases the foot, so instead of being upright, it relaxes.”

Chief of Farrier Services Patrick Reilly fitted Bethany with support shoes with long ends on the back, designed for extra support.

“Following the procedure, her comfort improved,” Noll said. “Her heart rate went down. She started getting up and down by herself, which she hadn’t been able to do.”

The ophthalmology team also treated ulcers in Bethany’s eyes, which eventually cleared up. The lice got under control. She was eating well. Yates visited often, bringing her favorite vanilla cream cookies.

“She got really sassy. She would slowly turn her hind end toward us,” Noll said, laughing. “She is a magnificent donkey.” 

The surgery and treatment were successful. “From where we were to where we are, this is a miracle,” Yates said.

Bethany stands unsupported after her tendon surgery

Patrol Donkey

Yates had adopted Bethany from a rescue organization, looking for a big donkey she could ride around their 83-acre Tully Cross Farm in Westminster, Maryland, which specializes in breeding Irish sport horses.

But the rescue organization was not honest about Bethany, Yates said. She was shocked when Bethany arrived in such “terrible” condition.

Nurse Jaime Miller walks Bethany out to go home.“But once you start, you can’t give up in the middle. If you’re not going to finish what you start, then don’t start,” Yates said.

Now Bethany roams the large farm, leaning over Charles Yates’ shoulder when he fixes the fences, tagging along with Susan Yates when she walks down the lane to get the mail.

“She’s having a wonderful time. I’ll look out and she’ll be lying in the field, flat out, soaking up the sun,” Yates said.

“She started patrolling the farm. She’s like a guard donkey,’ Yates continued. “She knows who comes and goes.”

Yates doesn’t expect Bethany to be able to be ridden or driven, so she will just live out her days on the farm. “She can’t be a working animal, but she can have a good life, a happy life,” she said. “We are fine with that.”

About Penn Vet

Ranked among the top ten veterinary schools worldwide, the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine (Penn Vet) is a global leader in veterinary education, research, and clinical care. Founded in 1884, Penn Vet is the first veterinary school developed in association with a medical school. The school is a proud member of the One Health initiative, linking human, animal, and environmental health.

Penn Vet serves a diverse population of animals at its two campuses, which include extensive diagnostic and research laboratories. Ryan Hospital in Philadelphia provides care for dogs, cats, and other domestic/companion animals, handling more than 34,600 patient visits a year. New Bolton Center, Penn Vet’s large-animal hospital on nearly 700 acres in rural Kennett Square, PA, cares for horses and livestock/farm animals. The hospital handles more than 6,200 patient visits a year, while our Field Services have gone out on more than 5,500 farm service calls, treating some 18,700 patients at local farms. In addition, New Bolton Center’s campus includes a swine center, working dairy, and poultry unit that provide valuable research for the agriculture industry.