A strange-looking freshwater turtle, Betty, a mata mata turtle at Riverbanks Zoo, is native to South America, more precisely the Amazon and Orinoco River basins. Though she and other mata mata turtles live a sedentary lifestyle, they thrive in South America’s blackwater streams, marshes, slack waters, and swamps. Her brownish-black shell resembles bark, her head bears semblance to fallen leaves, and her neck looks a bit like a long leaf. This appearance, carefully worked out by nature, blends Betty and other mata mata turtles into their surroundings. Being carnivores, they prey on aquatic invertebrates and fish, and looking like vegetation proves useful when you’re a suction feeder.
Betty holds a unique distinction: she is one of only a few turtles in the United States to receive radiation treatment for cancer.
Yes, turtles suffer from cancer, too.
A Decision to Innovate
Betty CT2Betty’s journey to radiation began when zoo staff noticed a mass had broken through her shell. Upon closer examination, it was revealed that the mass had eaten through a small area of the carapace bone. Surgery was performed at Riverbanks Zoo’s veterinary hospital to remove part of her mass. The surgery contributed to the diagnosis of a myxosarcoma, which is a cancer of the soft tissue. A CT scan following surgery revealed that a moderate amount of the mass remained and it was pressing against Betty’s spinal cord. As a result, Betty was very lethargic and seemed hesitant to move, likely because of pain from the pressure on her spine.
As an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Riverbanks provides the highest standards of veterinary medicine and seeks innovative ways to care for the zoo’s nearly 2,000 animals.
Betty RT3An oncology consultation with SCVSEC’s (South Carolina Veterinary Specialists & Emergency Care) Dr. Sara Fritz took place.* Based on her examination and the CT scan findings, the only treatment that might benefit Betty appeared to be palliative radiation therapy; something never attempted in turtles in the United States. Dr. Fritz and the SCVSEC Oncology team were willing to try though. The goal of the palliative radiation therapy would be to reduce Betty’s pain or discomfort, giving her a better quality of life. Palliative radiation therapy can also shrink tumors, thus providing a greater degree of comfort. It was during her radiation therapy treatments that the SCVSEC oncology team affectionately named this courageous mata mata turtle, “Betty.”
Betty’s Treatment Offers Hope
Sara Fritz performed Betty’s palliative radiation therapy once a week, for a total of six treatments. Progress was seen during her third treatment when Betty was able to stand on her back limbs on the radiation therapy table. Her pain medications were then decreased. At treatment four, Betty was feeling much better and proved daring, lunging at the zookeeper. By the end of her palliative radiation therapy, Betty was back to walking and swimming—way to go Betty!
Radiation therapy gave Betty the opportunity to swim comfortably while providing relief from pain. As a result, Betty’s radiation therapy treatment plan has opened the door to an innovative treatment for turtles. Consider Betty a pioneer.
* With Gratitude
SCVSEC takes pride in extending its services to Riverbanks Zoo and is thrilled that Betty is again swimming.