National Zoo elephant gets footwear to help with arthritis

You may have been to the store recently and picked up a cool new pair of shoes, but no one is sporting anything quite like what you will find on an elephant at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo.

For 41-year-old Shanthi, her new kicks are part of an innovative and novel way the zoo is trying to reduce a pachyderm's pain.

It may seem silly, but this isn't about fashion or fun. Shanthi has long suffered from arthritis that causes foot pain and pressure as well as cracks and lesions on her toenails and surrounding tissue. The National Zoo treats her with anti-inflammatories, daily pedicures and medicated foot soaps. But the zoo felt it was time to take another big step.

“Although we saw initial improvement in Shanthi's condition, it wasn't to the level that we were comfortable with,” said chief veterinarian Don Neiffer. “We decided to look for something more innovative, something new, something that had not been tried in an elephant.”

So they started a new treatment of injections and topical medication, but realized they needed a way to keep the medicine on her feet and debris like sand and grass off it.

“To address the toe and nail issues, we approached our partners at Teva who created two boots that fit on Shanthi's front feet,” said Neiffer. “These boots allow us to apply topical medications for several hours at a time while she freely moves around enclosure.”

According to the Washington Post, the boots are about a size 20 with an EEEEEEEEEEEE width.

If you are trying to see Shanthi sporting those new boots when you come to the zoo, you might be out of luck. Right now, she is wearing them off and on during treatment. But the next time you see her, you might notice that she does seem to be feeling better.

“As a zoo veterinarian, my patients don’t often tell me they are feeling better or not, but when our elephant team reported that Shanthi, who has not laid down for several months, was in the yard, in the pool, lying on her side and playing, I knew without a doubt that the efforts of all the teams here at the National Zoo had made a big and positive difference in her life,” said Neiffer.

Shanthi's condition is chronic so they can't cure it. But they can control it and give her a better quality of life.

This treatment has been successful in horses, but this is the first time it has been used in an elephant. If Shanthi really benefits from it, it could go beyond helping just her and start being used to help other elephants and large animals.

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