King cobra at Denver Zoo being treated for cancer

DENVER — Treating cancer is no easy battle, but it can be especially challenging when the patient is a 12-foot-long venomous snake.

But when zookeepers in Denver discovered their 18-year-old king cobra had lymphosarcoma, they were determined to help him fight it.

“From the largest elephant to the smallest snake, we care about all the animals at the Zoo and want to provide them the best possible care we can,” Sean Andersen-Vie with the Denver Zoo said.

Zookeepers first realized there was a problem a few months ago, Andersen-Vie said.

The snake’s main zookeeper, Tim Trout, noticed a strange, pinkish-purple coloration on the snake’s skin. The snake had also lost weight.

Veterinarians performed a biopsy, X-rays and blood tests to confirm the cancer.

“Initially, we weren’t sure what could be done to help him,” Andersen-Vie said. “The snake is more than 12 feet long, very powerful, and of course, very venomous, so he is a really challenging patient.

“We can’t therefore treat him like other patients using methods like an IV, and transporting it to another facility for radiation treatments would not have been ideal, either.”

Also, because lymphosarcoma affects white blood cells instead of causing a tumor, surgery is not an option.

It’s fairly common in dogs but is pretty rare for snakes and there is little veterinary medical literature about it, Andersen-Vie explained.

One of the zoo’s veterinarians, Dr. Betsy Stringer, did some research and developed a plan to use chemotherapy pills, basing the dosage off of the snake’s weight.

The pill is placed into the snake’s food — a thawed rat — once every three weeks.

“We believe this is the first time this has ever been attempted with a snake, and maybe for a reptile,” Andersen-Vie said. “He was given his third treatment last week and he seems to be improving little by little, based on his bloodwork and behavior.

“Ultimately, we’re hoping for complete remission, but even if not, we hope it at least improves the cobra’s quality of life and longevity.”

The snake doesn’t have a name.

“In fact, most of our reptiles don’t since we have so many and they would never answer to them if they did,” Andersen-Vie explained.