When a 400-plus-pound resident grizzly bear at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center began struggling with puzzling bouts of lameness, her caregivers turned to Washington State University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital for answers.
As bears are rare patients at the hospital, weeks of careful planning and coordination between at least half a dozen services went into the 5-year-old’s mid-October visit to Pullman from her home in West Yellowstone, Montana. The efforts led to clarity, as WSU veterinarians were able to diagnose the young bear – named Condi – with wobbler syndrome, a neurological condition that is often seen in large breed dogs and affects the spinal cord.
“We believe it results from rapid growth in large animals, often those with a well-nourished diet,” said Dr. Lynne Nelson, the lead cardiologist at WSU and a specialist in bear medicine who oversaw Condi’s care. “It’s perhaps related to the fact that these animals grow faster than the bones and the ligaments can strengthen to hold their body size, and that creates some hypertrophy, thickening of the spaces in the cord to compensate for the motion. That thickening narrows the spinal cord and eventually pinches it off in a location.”
Unfortunately, Condi’s impingement location ruled out the possibility of surgery. Nelson, who has more than 25 years of experience working with bears at facilities throughout the country and internationally, said Condi’s long-term prognosis is guarded, as she will likely experience a gradual worsening of her condition, though the timeline is uncertain. If her symptoms resurface, Condi will receive corticosteroid treatment to manage inflammation and swelling in the affected area.
Condi’s symptoms first appeared this past winter, beginning with a right forelimb lameness that would ebb and flow. The symptoms then shifted to different legs. A veterinarian at the center prescribed medications to help alleviate the symptoms and make Condi more comfortable. Throughout the summer, Condi appeared healthy, but her caregivers still elected to bring her to WSU.
At WSU, Condi was anesthetized and underwent a physical exam and various diagnostic tests, including an MRI that revealed Condi’s spinal cord was narrowing at the junction of her four limbs, causing her condition.
Grizzly bears in the wild have not been observed with wobbler syndrome, possibly due to the limited survival chances such a mobility issue would pose, but the condition has been documented in captive bears, Nelson said.
Condi and her sister, Seeley, have lived at the Discovery Center since they were young cubs. The pair were captured after they followed their mother into a residential neighborhood in the Seeley Swan Valley in northern Montana.
“They got into trouble because of unsecured food, which is a very common driver of conflict between people and bears,” said Tut Fuentevilla, education director at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center. “Bears are naturally very quick to make connections between animal activity and food being available. In this case, the mother must have recognized human activity was making that food accessible, so she started going closer to residential areas, areas where there are more people.”
While the diagnosis was not as positive as hoped, Fuentevilla said the center’s goal remains to provide Condi with the best possible quality of life. WSU will continue to be a partner in her care.
“We’ve really looked toward WSU for expertise in diet and veterinary care. Their input has been invaluable in ensuring we provide the best and most well-informed care for the animals. They are a critical resource for us, and it’s very valuable to have access to a world-class veterinary care facility.”
The Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center is a nonprofit wildlife park and educational facility that is home to bears, wolves, and other animals that are no longer able to live in the wild.