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Good for Science — and Sahara the Bearded Dragon, Too

Kimberly Tillapaugh holds Sahara the bearded dragon
Kimberly Tillapaugh holds her bearded dragon Sahara. Photo by John Joyner/NC State Veterinary Medicine

Kimberly calls herself a science nerd, and she can prove it.

For starters, she has undergraduate degrees in chemistry and biochemistry from East Carolina University and a master’s degree in pharmacy and forensic science from the University of Florida. The Washington, N.C., resident works as a team leader and analytical chemist for a pharmaceutical company.

If that isn’t enough, she has had a series of pets true science nerds love, including exotic birds, ferrets, guinea pigs and a rose hair female tarantula named Odie.

Currently, Tillapaugh and her husband Chris show their more conventional side, owning three dogs. But ever the curious scientist, she got interested in reptiles. In 2015, Tillapaugh ended up getting a 6-month-old female bearded dragon and named her Sahara.

Life proceeded normally, with Sahara thriving on her tasty diet of veggies and insects, primarily cockroaches. Things changed last fall, when Tillapaugh noticed that Sahara had an infection in her left eye. When the eye problem proved to be surprisingly stubborn, Sahara was referred to the NC State Veterinary Hospital. Blood tests revealed a much more serious problem: Sahara had leukemia.

The recommended treatment for Sahara was a combination of six rounds of injectable chemotherapy, plus anti-inflammatories, and she seemed to be responding well after the last dose this May. Following a scheduled recheck in August, however, clinicians determined that Sahara had lost weight and was no longer in remission.

The unfortunate reality is that there hasn’t been enough clinical experience with some exotic animals, such as bearded dragons, to firmly establish the most effective treatments for various cancers, including leukemia. When NC State veterinarians recommended trying an alternative approach to Sahara’s treatment, it immediately appealed to Tillapaugh. The recommendation was for a combination of injectable and oral chemotherapy.

“As a scientist, I was intrigued by the research aspects of this approach,” she says. “And I wanted to try everything we could for Sahara.”

She approved trying the new treatment.

“I definitely noticed a difference,” Tillapaugh says. “She began eating better. She’s always been pretty docile, and she became more active. Things looked more hopeful.”

One of the factors for pet owners dealing with advanced medical treatments for their animal companions is the cost, and Tillapaugh is no exception. That’s when the medical team told her about the availability of financial assistance thanks to a generous investment from the Petco Foundation and Blue Buffalo Cancer Treatment Fund. The treatment funds help owners defray the cost of treating companion animal cancers. These generous investments help pet parents focus on providing the best possible care for their pets rather than the cost of care.

“The grant helps us financially and helps us offer Sahara the best care,” Tillapaugh says. “I’m very, very, very grateful to the Petco Foundation and Blue Buffalo.”

During an October checkup, Sahara was still doing well but her condition declined. She died earlier this month.

Tillipaugh has no regrets about Sahara’s treatment. “It was an unconventional approach to chemotherapy for her,” she says, “but it was also to help advance research in the field. I’d like to think that she played a vital role in creating a baseline or pathway for treatment in other bearded dragons and small reptiles.”

~Steve Volstad/ NC State Veterinary Medicine