Vets at Paignton Zoo have treated a giant tortoise with an unusual therapy rarely available to animals in the UK.

Dora, the 32-year-old Aldabra giant tortoise, damaged her shell and the hole became infected. Vets had to cut away some of her half-centimetre-thick shell using a power tool before cleaning and dressing the wound. They then used Vacuum Assisted Closure – VAC – also known as Negative Pressure Wound Therapy – NPWT - to help speed recovery.

Led by Paignton Zoo vet Jo Reynard, the assembled team included her fellow Zoo vet Christa van Wessem and vet nurse Celine Campana, as well as student nurse Grainne Twomey, veterinary anaesthetist Keith Simpson from Vetronic Services and wound specialist nurse Nicky Richardson.

Jo explained: “There was a hole in the shell with bacterial and fungal infection. Tortoises do not have fleshy tissue under the shell, the shell overlies a bony layer, when this layer is exposed the tissue dies off and becomes invaded with bacteria and fungi. This is called avascular bone and it does not have the cells available to heal.

“We cut back the dead avascular infected bone to living bone tissue, which has the cells available for repair. To encourage healing and to speed up the process we applied a medical vacuum inside a sealed dressing over the wound. This draws infection up and away from the wound and pulls cells for new blood vessels and repair in to the deficit. It’s called Vacuum Assisted Closure or Negative Pressure Wound Therapy. This is available to human patients in cases of extreme wounds, but is not in general use in veterinary medicine.”

Dora is put up on blocks with her feet just off the floor, like a car with its wheels removed. Everything to do with a giant tortoise takes a while; the anaesthetic works slowly, but eventually staff are confident she is under and stable. The shell lesion is uncovered and cleaned thoroughly. Then Jo picks up her oscillating power saw…

Once the area is cut away and cleaned, it’s time to put on the dressing; to anyone who is not medically trained, it looks a little like wrapping the shell in cling film.

Dora’s keepers and the Curator of Lower Vertebrates & Invertebrates, Luke Harding, pop in to check on her progress, chatting to the vets in their safari print scrubs. Dora will have to get used to the VAC machine for a while; another thing about tortoises that is slow is the speed of recovery, though the technology will hopefully make things go a little more quickly.

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