Unique Surgery’s Success Leaves Snip the Horse Smiling

By Mike Jernigan

No one would have blamed Todd and Amy Nichols had they given up on their horse, Snip.

He’d been given up on before. In fact, that’s how the Nichols got him. The 12-year-old American quarter horse was given to them due to a softball-sized tumor on the side of his head that made it impossible to put on his bridle. Unable to ride him, his previous owner gave him away and the Andalusia, Alabama, couple took him as a companion for a blind horse they already had.

But the Nichols weren’t ready to give up on making Snip better. They took him to Dr. Hank Lee in nearby Atmore, who referred them to the Auburn College of Veterinary Medicine’s J.T. Vaughan Large Animal Hospital for a CT scan, biopsy and other tests. At Auburn, the prognosis was dire. The softball-sized mass was diagnosed as a parotid carcinoma, located in the right parotid salivary gland. But rather than euthanizing Snip or letting him live out his remaining time in discomfort, the Nichols wanted to know their options. There didn’t seem to be many.

“Salivary gland cancer is rare in a horse,” according to Dr. Lindsey Boone, associate professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences who led the Auburn team that treated Snip. “And surgical removal of the parotid gland is equally uncommon. There are even some textbooks that state that due to the anatomical constraints involved, it is impossible and it has not been described in the literature.”

But Boone and her team knew that if Snip was to have any hope at all, they would have to attempt the risky surgery. And the Nichols were confident enough in their new Auburn vets to proceed. “The wonderful team of doctors at Auburn worked for weeks to prepare for Snip’s surgery,” noted Amy Nichols, “since there was no record of a surgery like this being performed before. Dr. Boone and her surgical resident, Dr. Sandra Zetterström, as well as surgical oncologist Dr. Brad Matz (Lowder Distinguished Associate Professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences) conducted this surgery for Snip”

“I was willing to attempt the surgery because I put together a great team of specialists,” recalled Boone, “with an anatomist, equine surgeon, ophthalmologist, oncologic surgeon and an oncologist. This team approach was what truly made the difference. The Nichols wanted what was best for Snip and put all their trust in Auburn. They knew there would be complications, but they went ahead anyway for the betterment of their horse.”

Once the surgery finally began, it proved even more complex than Boone had feared. “We were prepared for blood loss, which happened, but we were able to control,” she explained of the surgery itself. “We were not prepared for how deeply adhered the mass was to the side of the guttural pouch, which required surgical entry into its lateral compartment. We then had to come up with a plan to try to replace the outside wall of the guttural pouch, which we did with a SIS membrane to cover the void left by tumor removal.”

Boone suspects it was this entry into the guttural pouch that led to Snip’s complications after surgery, but happily, they resolved as post-surgical swelling and inflammation improved. “Snip had some difficulty eating and drinking for a few days after surgery,” Boone said, “but as the inflammation reduced his function recovered. We knew the facial nerve would be transected and this would lead to some issues with his lip and difficulty blinking his right eye. But he has been well managed with eye medications and the crooked smile just adds to his character.”

Nichols agrees that Snip’s minor complications only add to his uniqueness. “We were told ahead of time of the many side effects Snip could have from the surgery,” she said, “but thankfully, he only has a cosmetic droop of his lip and it’s kind of cute. We give him drops in his eye three times a day to keep it lubricated and prevent corneal ulcers and we will do that for the rest of his life.”

But since the groundbreaking surgery, Snip’s life has most definitely taken a turn for the better. At a recent Auburn checkup, he celebrated the end of two years cancer-free. And Nichols says his happier life is due to the great care he received and continues to receive at Auburn.

“While Snip was in the hospital,” she said, “his doctors kept us updated every day with information, pictures and even videos of his improvement. Since then, they’ve helped us understand the healing process and have been awesome every step of the way. His recovery is truly a miracle. Thank you will never be enough for all that his doctors and Auburn did for our Snip.”