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One of Santa’s reindeer may miss the ride this year

A reindeer that underwent surgery last week for a dislocated knee may not be able to fly with Dancer, Dasher, and Vixen on Christmas night this year, but she is still expected to make a full recovery, Tufts University’s veterinary school said.

Willow, a year-and-a-half old reindeer, is doing well and recovering in an off-exhibit space at the Franklin Park Zoo, where she will stay for six to eight weeks.

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“She’s up and walking,” said Dr. Robert McCarthy, a veterinary surgeon who led the operation. “Our goal is for this reindeer to be normal, no lameness, no arthritis.”

The operation required the surgical team to create a fracture in the reindeer’s right hind leg so that the tendon and bone could be realigned, McCarthy said. The procedure lasted just over an hour.

“Her recovery is all about the fracture we made,” McCarthy said. “Until that’s strong, she can’t do anything [but walk].”

McCarthy, who primarily works with dogs and cats at the Foster Hospital for Animals at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, said that it is often a genetic predisposition in the animal’s anatomy that causes a dislocated knee, also referred to as a luxating patella. However, tests made on the juvenile reindeer to see if she suffered from a genetic defect of some kind were inconclusive.

Trauma or injury was their next guess, but doctors still find it is often a slight anatomic problem that leads to such an injury, McCarthy said. Additionally, a reindeer is substantially larger than a regular house pet -- the leg itself being close in size to a human’s -- adding to the complexity of this surgery.

“My whole fear was that we’d do the repair and she’d stand and destroy it,” McCarthy said, since usually tiny pins and wire is all it takes to realign the legs of cats and dogs, but for the 160-pound Willow, plates and screws made of surgical stainless steel were used instead.

“It wasn’t horribly difficult,” he said of the procedure. “As long as that kneecap stays in like we think it should, she should be 100 percent.”

Zoo staff members at the Stone Zoo in Stoneham, where Willow resides with two other reindeer, hope that she will be able to have visitors to her exhibit in February, Tufts said.

Sarah N. Mattero can be reached at
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