Lion Surgery: How We Monitor, Diagnose and Treat Animals in Our Care

July 24, 2022

Earlier this year one of our female lions, Asha, underwent a spay surgery (ovariohysterectomy) which involves surgical removal of the ovaries and uterus. Many pet owners are likely familiar with this surgery but it is not a common surgery for lions. In Asha’s case this surgery was needed because she developed a pyometra which is an infection of the uterus. This causes the uterus to fill with bacteria and pus. Pyometra is a serious medical condition which can lead to bacteria entering the bloodstream (sepsis) or uterine rupture, both of which are fatal.

The process that led to us getting to the point of surgery shows the importance of everyone on the zoo team working together. Treating zoo animals is more difficult than pets because we are limited in what we can do with them on a day to day basis. The keepers monitor the animals and work with them every day so they are able to see if something is out of the ordinary. This is how the keepers noticed that there was discharge coming from Asha’s vulva. They also were able to see that Asha was acting uncomfortable, she was sitting and moving in a way that showed that she had pain in her abdomen. When the keepers observed this, the zoo veterinarian was contacted to evaluate Asha. The discharge was yellow and had blood in it indicating that there was an infection. Because of where the discharge was and the observations telling us that there was pain in Asha’s abdomen, a pyometra was the most likely cause. If this occurs in a dog or cat, the veterinarian will typically perform x-rays or an ultrasound to confirm that there is a pyometra. Unfortunately, with a lion, we can’t perform these diagnostics unless she is under anesthesia.

Because a pyometra is life threatening and surgery would be needed, the zoo veterinarian contacted the surgical specialists at Veterinary Specialists and Emergency Services here in Rochester. Spaying a big cat typically requires a large incision in order to remove the uterus and ovaries. However, the specialists are able to perform laparoscopic surgery which requires a much smaller incision. We were able to schedule the surgery for the following morning. For the evening, Asha was started on pain medication and antibiotics to make her more comfortable and help to control the infection.

On the day of surgery the zoo veterinary staff met up with the surgery team in the morning. Asha received a sedative injection so that she could be brought down to the surgery room where she had an endotracheal tube placed to maintain her under anesthesia. She also had monitors for her vital signs similar to what is used for humans. The surgeons made 3 small incisions – one for the laparoscope which allows them to see into the abdomen on a screen and the other two incisions are for surgical instruments. Once they placed the scope they could see Asha’s uterus which was inflamed and filled with pus. Using the laparoscopic equipment the surgeons were able to ligate or ‘seal’ the blood vessels to the uterus and ovaries. They were then able to surgically remove the uterus and ovaries through the main incision on the midline of her belly. Thanks to this laparoscopic surgery, Asha had a much smaller incision than if we were to perform everything through a typical surgery incision.

After surgery the keepers kept a close eye on Asha to make sure that she did not lick at the incision – we can’t put a cone on a lion! She also had to spend some time separated from the other lions to allow her incision to fully heal. Everything went very well after surgery, she took pain medications to make sure she stayed comfortable and was soon able to go back with the other two lions. Asha is now happy and healthy. She can usually be seen on top of the rocks surveying the kingdom!

– Dr. Chris McKinney, DVM / Zoo Veterinarian

* Banner photo by Ken Tryon