Tongue in Cheek, No More: Bear Has Huge 6.5 Pound Swelling Removed After Mystery Illness in Myanmar

Nyan htoo, an 18-month-old Asiatic black bear, had 6.5 pounds of excess tissue removed from his swollen tongue. Monks in Myanmar had rescued the bear as a cub. The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies

Nyan htoo, a 18-month-old Asiatic black bear, had been rescued as a cub along with his brother by monks in Myanmar. The bears had been taken from their mother and were destined to be sold illegally in China.

But the monks soon realized that something was not right with Nyan htoo—whose name means "bright," as in clever.

Nyan htoo's tongue became so enlarged that he could not shut his mouth. Vets operated to remove excess tissue in 2016, but after a recovery period, the swelling came back with a vengeance.

The bear's tongue was so big that it dragged along the floor—raising the potential for bad oral hygiene and possible infections—and he often had to rest his head on his cage bars to cope with the huge strain being placed on his head and neck by its weight.

The bear’s tongue was so big that it dragged along the floor and caused him to rest his head on his cage bars for relief from carrying its weight. The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies

But now, Nyan htoo has been freed from that burden: Vets have operated to remove 6.5 pounds (3 kilograms) of excess tissue from the bear's tongue in a procedure that lasted four hours.

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It's not clear what caused the swelling in the first place. After an examination, they determined that it may have resulted from elephantiasis—a symptom of a mosquito-borne disease, called lymphatic filariasis, which results in abnormal enlargement of body parts. At least 36 million people live with chronic manifestations of the disease—including a swollen scrotum—according to the World Health Organization.

Elephantiasis is commonly observed in people in Myanmar but has never been reported in bears.

Heather Bacon, a veterinary surgeon from the University of Edinburgh's Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, was part of the team that operated on the bear. She told The Guardian that the swollen tongue was having a profound effect on the bear's quality of life.

"Having to carry around 3 kilograms of tongue is not normal, and that's a lot of weight on his jaw and head.... Now he should be able to close his mouth and manipulate food," said Bacon.

Caroline Nelson—a veterinary nurse at Animals Asia's Vietnam Bear Rescue Centre who was also part of the team that treated Nyan htoo—said the bear would now "be able to eat much more comfortably, sleep in more natural positions and move more freely for the rest of his life."

The operation should result in a much better quality of life for Nyan htoo. The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies