Smaug on the mend: Experts team up to take down dragon's ailment

<div class="meta image-caption"><div class="origin-logo origin-image none"><span>none</span></div><span class="caption-text">Experts at the Houston Zoo and the Baylor College of Medicine teamed up to help Smaug, the Komodo dragon (KTRK Photo/ Houston Zoo)</span></div>
Many people are keeping an eye on Smaug these days, and it's not because he's breathing fire like his Tolkien namesake.

Smaug, the 16-year-old Komodo dragon at the Houston Zoo, is undergoing care for his foot.

Last November, zookeepers noticed something was wrong with how the animal's right front foot moved.

Dr. Lauren Howard, associate veterinarian at the Houston Zoo, explained, "We noticed that Smaug...occasionally was flipping it underneath and walking on the top of his toes."

The zoo reached out to Jared Howell, director of the Orthotics and Prosthetics Program at Baylor College of Medicine.

Howell explained when a Komodo dragon picks up its foot, it slides forward and the animals fire their muscles and are able to put their palm downward.

He said, "What happened for Smaug is that he wasn't able to fire his muscles to pull the foot forward, so as he picked up his shoulder to pull the foot forward, it stayed in the flex position and then he would land on it and roll his wrist underneath every single time he took a step. He's over 200 pounds, so that's a lot of weight going onto that hand."

The Baylor experts devised a rubberized spring-loaded device made from casts of Smaug's foot. The device allows Smaug to have a natural range of motion at the wrist while still being able to have it spring up when he takes his weight off of it so the palm would fall flat on the ground the way it should.

Baylor also fitted Smaug with another device to combat a foot infection. Both devices, the zoo says, are working well -- with some fine-tuning.

"We've noticed a difference in the management of Smaug's right front foot. One thing we were having trouble with was his toes were starting to get swollen and infected from the trauma from how he was carrying the foot," Howard said. "With this latest brace, we were able to keep the toes straight and they healed up - they stopped getting traumatized, the swelling went down and they weren't infected anymore."

She added, "What we're looking at is a long-term goal of keeping this brace on for four to six to eight months and hoping that over time, it will strengthen his arm and maybe help him keep it in the right position."

Howell notes that there was a learning curve in working with the reptile.

"It's a bit different," he said. "You don't have human tissue, you have scales, different muscle functions and joints that all move in different ways. All of those things added to the challenge, but it was a great learning experience and a lot of fun."
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