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Mammography gives inside look at mammals and an ailing salamander

January 28, 2007|John Biemer | Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — The slippery little salamander lying on the mammography machine was oblivious to the way the device had once been used.

With equipment that had checked thousands of women for breast cancer, Brookfield Zoo veterinarians produced an intricate look at Tony the tiger salamander's innards. The critter recently had an infection in his right rear foot severe enough that doctors had to amputate the tip of his toe.

St. James Hospital and Health Centers in Olympia Fields, Ill., donated the mammography unit to the suburban zoo last fall as the medical facility upgraded to digital technology. Hospital officials estimate that in nine years of use, the machine produced mammograms for more than 40,000 women.

In the last four months, the zoo has used it on birds, lizards, a bat, a shrew, a hedgehog, a seahorse and even a tarantula.

"We deal with so many little guys that it's really beneficial to see what's going on in their tiny little bodies," said Michelle Soszynski, the animal hospital's senior keeper.

The machine even works with larger animals, as long as the part of the critter that needs to be examined can fit on a plastic platform about the size of a sheet of paper.

Recently, veterinarians and keepers rolled an anesthetized gray kangaroo on a gurney up to the machine and slid him forward to take a radiograph of his snout. The kangaroo -- a 6-year-old, 140-pound male named Perry -- had an infection of the upper jaw near the incisors. Two weeks earlier, veterinarians had sutured acrylic beads that release locally targeted antibiotics into Perry's mouth. They wanted to see if the procedure was working.

"It looks better, which is good news, because a jaw can really be a problem with a kangaroo," said Dr. Michelle Davis, a veterinary resident, as she flipped up the woozy marsupial's lips and looked at its gums after checking the radiograph.

The machine produces highly detailed images of bone, muscle, tissue and organs, which aid in making more accurate diagnoses while exposing the patient to less and more narrowly targeted radiation.

"The level of detail you get with those bones is unlike anything you get with an ordinary X-ray," said Dr. Tom Meehan, the Chicago Zoological Society's director of veterinary services.

Although humans aren't the only mammals that can develop breast cancer, anatomical differences make it unlikely the machine could be used to produce an animal mammogram, he said.

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