Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Medicating Mole-Rats

The last months of 2010 and the first of 2011 have been tough ones for the naked mole-rat colony. Despite an aggressive “super clean” in November, both Elphaba and Galinda produced unsuccessful litters. More troubling yet, two individuals in the colony experienced severe health problems in December and January.

As the names “Skinny Guy” and “little Skinny Guy” suggest, these two individuals have been on our watch list for quite a while, due to low weights and symptoms of respiratory problems. Both have been treated in the past, shown signs of improving, but not made long-term gains in health.

Little Skinny Guy’s condition became critical in December. He was brought to the vet, and the decision was made not to attempt another treatment but to euthanize him and use any findings from his necropsy (autopsy for an animal) to benefit the rest of the colony. This decision may have an enormous benefit for the rest of the animals. Little Skinny Guy was found to have symptoms of internal parasites, anaerobic single celled amoebas that were not picked up in fecal samples taken at different times during his life. Weeks later, the bigger Skinny Guy also developed very serious health problems and was euthanized. We do not yet know if there is a connection but it appears probable.

As they share living space, food and, sometimes, cecal pellets, it is likely that many or all in the colony have been exposed to these bacteria. Perhaps the two skinny animals had other underlying problems that made them more vulnerable. If left untreated, will the other animals begin to show the same health problems?

With that in mind, the rest of the colony is now being treated with an antibiotic for two weeks. Giving a daily oral antibiotic to forty naked mole-rats is not a trivial undertaking. Although they rarely bite or otherwise harm their handlers, they can show their dislike of the treatment in other ways. In the wild, naked mole-rats never drink water, so they are not naturally disposed to swallow liquid. Because they have the ability to close their lips behind their teeth, mole-rats can off all access to get medication down their throats. They also like to bite the syringe as it approaches their mouths.

The positive results of this course of antibiotics may be difficult to measure, since none of our mole-rats are currently exhibiting obvious signs of infection or ill health. However, we hope that by using this preventative measure, we will see an overall improvement in colony health and possibly, more babies! Check back for more updates on the colony in a few months

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