Colorado State University (CSU) veterinarians used innovative treatment to help Mahali, a 14-year-old giraffe.

It is not uncommon for giraffes to get arthritis as they age, given that their limbs must support an average of 2,000 pounds. Current treatment includes pain medication and corrective hooftrims.

However, according to Colorado State University’s SOURCE, these treatments are not effective enough to keep giraffes comfortable as they age and live up to 30 years.

Mahali’s condition reflects this reality. Because of his arthritis, he would not put weight on his front left for more than a few minutes at a time.

Dr. Liza Dadone, head veterinarian at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, partnered with CSU veterinarians Dr. Val Johnson and Dr. Amanda Morphet in 2016, determined to better remedy arthritis in zoo animals.

“Stem-cell therapy has resulted in dramatic clinical improvement in some cases of arthritis in horse and other species, but has not, until now, been attempted in giraffes,” Johnson told SOURCE.

To treat Mahali with stem cells, the team had to overcome several challenges — including funding. Dadone and Johnson executed a crowdfunding campaign to develop a technique to grow multiple treatments of stem cells from giraffe blood.

Then, administering the stem cells requires that the animal be absolutely still. Giraffes at the zoo are accustomed to husbandry such as hoof trims and blood draws, but for this, Mahali had to be anesthetized.

Together, the veterinarians, two anesthesiologists and other zoo staff worked to successfully inject the stem cells, reposition his body to prevent complications and help Mahali get up once he awoke.

Six weeks later, Mahali showed and improved comfort level. Thermal imaging showed fewer hot spots — the stem cells were a significant mark in improving his quality of life.

The giraffe herd at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo has been helped by new treatment developments before. In May, farrier Chris Niclas created and applied therapeutic rubber shoes for Twiga, another giraffe at the zoo.

“We don’t want animals suffering, so we’re really trying to use these new procedures to give hope to these animals and zoos around the country,” says Dr. Morphet, who is training at CSU to specialize in exotic and zoo animals.