Exotic vet work shapes student’s future

Veterinarian investigates exotic species, pursues objectives

By PATRICK CARROLL/Montana State News

Recent Montana State University graduate Amanda Zellar, 21, is pursuing a career as an exotic veterinarian. She has studied and conducted veterinary research in Thailand and Australia and served as a biology teaching assistant at MSU. She also has worked with award-winning MSU professor Scott Creel on his study on African wild dogs.

In the spring of 2011, Zellar did her honors undergraduate thesis in Northern Thailand on “the treatment and prevention of foot disease in captive elephants.” She said she wrote a paper based on interviews she conducted with elephant veterinarians regarding how they treated foot disease and what measures they took to prevent it.

“Foot disease is the major concern for elephants in captivity in the US (United States), just because it’s something so big that you have all that weight coming down on the feet, and if an elephant is lame on even one leg, it can’t walk, just because of the way that they have to weight their feet,” said Zellar.

When asked about her interest in elephant foot disease, Zellar said “I’m really interested in animal health, and elephants are just such a unique case, like they’re such an exaggerated form of joint and bone diseases that they just make a really interesting topic.”

Zellar discovered that in Thailand elephant foot disease is considered less serious than it is in the United States. She said she found it surprising that, contrary to common practice in the United States, no measures are taken to prevent foot disease in Thailand. According to Zellar, U.S. facilities go to great lengths to protect elephants in captivity from getting foot disease, but 50 percent still get it.

“Eye infections are apparently a big problem for elephants there, but foot problems are not. I think most of them estimated around 1 in 5 elephants may have some form of foot disease in their lifetime, but that many fewer than that would actually have one that was chronic, like that wouldn’t go away, which was really interesting,” Zellar said.

In the fall of 2012, Zellar assisted in another study related to animal health. She helped Creel by “compiling some data from his field notes from a seven-year study on African wild dogs.” According to Zellar, Creel was “working on a project with a theory that pack living lets African wild dogs survive major injuries that would kill a solitary predator.”

“There’s someone around who can catch your food for you if you live in a pack, so you can heal up for a few days,” she said. “You don’t have to run and chase something down in order to eat.”

Zellar said she had several opportunities to assist in studies but ultimately chose the African wild dog study “because it was health-related and it talked about dynamics of survival and injuries in wildlife, and I’m really interested in wild animals and interesting and exotic species.”

Creel said, “Amanda undertook the enormous task of going through five years of data from the observations of wild dogs in Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve and compiling all of the information about injury rates, severity and outcome.”

Zellar said she then compared this to “pack size and some other variables … to see if there’s a statistically significant difference that goes with how big a group you’re living in and how survivable a severe injury is for you.”

When asked about the results of the study, Creel said, “I don’t have any final results to report, partly because I have not lined up a student to finish the work Amanda was doing so well.”

Zellar did say that male African wild dogs were more susceptible to injury than females, and alphas were also found to be more likely to be injured than their subordinates. Compiled data indicated that there was a 17.6 percent chance that any dog would be injured in any given year.

When asked about Zellar’s role in his study, Creel said, “Amanda’s work has already revealed interesting and unexpected differences in injury rates between the sexes and animals of different social status, probably due to different roles when hunting, or due to differences in the likelihood of fighting. Amanda’s work was absolutely critical for this project, and she extended this project in some interesting ways that we had not originally planned. She will certainly be a co-author on the finished research paper.”

Zellar is working in Billings at a veterinary clinic called Vet-To-Go 20 hours to 24 hours a week. She said she would like to work more and is currently only working two 10-hour to 12-hour workdays per week. According to their website, the clinic offers routine and diagnostic veterinary care for dogs and cats as well as some smaller or exotic creatures. Vet-To-Go also offers spay and neuter surgery, lab work, boarding and even house calls.

Zellar will be going to graduate school at Colorado State University in August. According to the veterinary website veterinarynews.dvm360.com, the school is tied with North Carolina State University for the third-best veterinary college in the nation.

– Edited by Nathan Voeller

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