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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

WSU doctors save Leavenworth reindeer from close call

Cupid the reindeer with a team of veterinarians from Washington State University.  (Courtesy of Erika Bowie)
By Gabriel Garcia Wenatchee World

LEAVENWORTH – Earlier this month, 6-month-old Cupid returned home to the Leavenworth Reindeer Farm after 17 days at Washington State University’s Veterinarian Teaching Hospital after he became ill and almost died.

It all started Oct. 20 when Cupid, also known as “Baby Cupid,” began to show signs of gastrointestinal blockage.

His abdomen was making weird movements, said Leavenworth Reindeer farm general manager Erika Bowie.

“You could see his tummy was making movements that weren’t normal,” Bowie said.

On the first day when the symptoms began, Bowie called their veterinarian, Dr. Don Berdan, who gave them antibiotics and mineral oil to help pass the blockage in Cupid. But that didn’t work.

“So when 24 hours when symptoms persisted and there weren’t any changes, we began to make arrangements to Pullman,” Bowie said.

To see what was happening in Cupid’s stomach, an MRI was imminent as an ultrasound wouldn’t get a clear result due to the reindeer’s thick coats, even if shaved. Bowie said the veterinary hospital at WSU is the closest facility with an MRI for animals like reindeer.

Two days after Cupid started to show symptoms, he was transported in a horse carrier to Washington State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Pullman, nearly four and a half hours away.

Bowie said they waited two days because in order to perform an MRI the reindeer would need to be sedated. And that can be dangerous for some reindeer.

“Bull reindeer have elevated testosterone this time of year which makes it difficult to wake up after sedation,” Bowie said.

It was a tough decision to make because there was a chance Cupid might not wake up.

“You’re walking a fine line between hoping it can work itself out without that level of intervention but also wanting that reindeer to get all the care we have access to,” Bowie said.

When he arrived, the veterinarians still attempted to get ultrasound images but the results were inconclusive – even when Cupid was shaved.

So Cupid went under sedation for an MRI with the risk of not waking up again.

Cupid undergoes surgery

The MRI revealed Cupid had a foreign mass in the fourth chamber of his stomach.

As Cupid’s health was getting worse, Bowie and her team agreed to allow surgery on the young reindeer which meant he had to go under sedation a second time.

During surgery, the veterinarians successfully removed the mass from Cupid’s stomach and discovered it was a calcified hairball.

However, the WSU team also found an abscess in the reindeer’s rectum and was unable to remove it from the position that it was located in and determined that it had to pass itself.

“We had to start the waiting game where we hoped it would drain on its own,” Bowie said. “And we hoped that it would not drain back into his stomach, we needed it to drain out and not in.”

Each day, Cupid’s doctors hooked him with an intravenous line of fluids and antibiotics to flush out the abscess in his rectum.

The IV line ran along his antlers to prevent him from getting tangled in the line and Bowie said he looked cute.

After his surgery, Cupid was doing better, but Bowie said he was looking sad and losing his playfulness.

“Reindeer are herd animals,” Bowie said. “So separated from their herd they get really depressed.”

Then Baby Cupid developed a fever, his protein levels rose and the doctors were worried his blood may have been contaminated during surgery which is always a risk when animals get their stomachs opened, Bowie said.

It was not looking good for Baby Cupid, his health was deteriorating rapidly.

She and her team asked if the doctors could perform a blood transfusion on Cupid to help save his life.

The doctors said Cupid needed donated blood from two reindeer that were not related to him.

Help from friends

The farm crew loaded reindeer Noelle and Tinkerbelle in Leavenworth onto trailers and transported them to Pullman.

“We don’t really bring our reindeer off the farm so they’ve never been on a horse carrier before, they were such good girls they did really well,” Bowie said.

As soon as they arrived from their four and half hour trip the veterinarians at WSU took the reindeer to start the blood transfusion.

“It was just within minutes of getting them there, they were hooked up and Nolle stood for about 45 minutes like a perfect angel and donated four bags of blood,” Bowie said. “They (the veterinarians) were all so impressed with that reindeer how still and calm she was standing there in a new environment.”

With Tinkerbelle’s donated blood the veterinarians spun it into plasma to keep for future emergencies for another baby reindeer who may need it.

The veterinarians then immediately began the blood transfusion to Cupid with Noelle’s blood.

Within 24 hours of the blood transfusion Cupid’s fever went down and his protein levels went back to normal and continued to trend in the right direction the following day.

Then the veterinarians gave the good news that Cupid would be able to return home.

“After he finished his IV and antibiotics we got to take him home after 17 days in the hospital,” Bowie said.

A story of resiliency

It was an emotional rollercoaster for the Leavenworth Reindeer Farm and a situation Bowie and her staff had never experienced before.

Bowie said the whole ordeal is a story of resiliency about Cupid and everyone involved in keeping him alive.

“The odds were all stacked against him. Reindeer are very fragile, and we were cautiously optimistic the entire time and we never wanted to give up hope,” Bowie said. “We are so grateful that we have world-class vet care right here on our farm but we also have such an amazing veterinary hospital just four hours away with doctors that know their stuff and care about our animals and are willing to do anything possible and not give up.”

Cupid is now recovering back on the Leavenworth farm and got the stitches on his stomach taken out this week.

“He’s wearing a little red jacket that’s actually – I think is for an alpaca and he looks really cute in it,” Bowie said “But we want him to stay warm while he works on growing back in that winter coat.”

In the meantime, Cupid is recovering in his own pen area to prevent him from getting accidentally poked by the other reindeer.

“Baby Cupid is probably not going to be trying out for Santa’s sleigh this year but don’t count him out for next year,” Bowie said.

Bowie said Cupid’s family was excited to have him back at the farm and that his mother and a brother lay next to him on the other side of the gate where he is kept while he recovers.

“It’s sweet to see how happy his family was to have him back on the farm,” Bowie said.

Bowie is also grateful to her staff for caring for the reindeer like family and like checking up on them even on their time off.

“This year we had to raise a baby on a bottle to save her life and that requires around-the-clock care and it’s really an amazing team of people that makes stuff like that happen,” she said.