Published: 15 Dec 2023 | Last Updated: 15 Dec 2023 12:57:47

Snowflake the reindeer has been given the gift of sight this Christmas after undergoing a successful eye operation by specialists at the Royal Veterinary College (RVC).

The nine-year-old reindeer is part of a herd of 22 reindeer based in Rutland. Snowflake is said to be an “absolute darling” and is nearly as famous as Rudolph himself, having appeared on shows such as EastEnders, Made in Chelsea, and The Lorraine Show as well as featuring in television adverts and making guest appearances at weddings.

This winter, Snowflake received treatment from the Ophthalmology Service at the RVC’s Queen Mother Hospital for Animals for a tumour on her left third eyelid. Reindeer, alongside other animals such as dogs, cats, camels and sharks, have a transparent third eyelid called a ‘nictitating membrane’ which helps to keep dust from the eye and can improve vision.

After noticing an abnormal growth on her left third eyelid – and already recovering from skin cancer in her right eye in 2018 – Snowflake’s owner brought her back to the RVC.

The team, led by Dr Maria-Christine Fischer, Lecturer in Ophthalmology, Dr Sara Lawrence-Mills, Senior Clinical Training Fellow in Anaesthesia, and Dr Carolina Palacios Jimenez, Lecturer in Anaesthesia, examined Snowflake. They found that while Snowflake held a good body condition and her sight wasn’t yet affected, there were early signs that the abnormal growth could lead to the same common form of skin cancer again.

The team decided to perform surgery to remove the third eyelid under sedation. To prepare, they applied local anaesthetic and eye drops and after surgery, they used cryotherapy on the wound edge to promote healing.

Throughout the whole procedure, Snowflake’s daughter was with her so they both remained calm, helping to support the surgery.

The third eyelid was then submitted for examination, which confirmed the presence of skin cancer (squamous cell carcinoma) which the team at the RVC was able to remove completely.

Snowflake has now made a full recovery and has enjoyed being reunited with her herd in time for Christmas.

Dr Maria-Christine Fischer, Lecturer in Ophthalmology at the RVC, said:

“Snowflake had a cancerous mass on her third eye lid. Surgical removal of the third eyelid in a Reindeer has not been reported before. We were pleased that we could perform the surgery with Snowflake under a standing sedation and with using local anaesthetics. As an ophthalmologist, I am committed to preserving vision so it’s rewarding that we were able to completely excise the tumour and did not have to remove the eyeball. It’s a very good outcome.

“I’m also pleased that Snowflake recovered quickly from the procedure, and we were able to share the protocol of the sedation and the local nerve blocks with other vets via a scientific publication. Sharing our knowledge will hopefully be beneficial for future ophthalmic surgeries in reindeer.”

Nick Dean, Snowflake’s owner, said:

“Eyesight is essential for reindeer as they have ultra violet vision which allows them to find lichens (reindeer moss) under the snow and dig it out with their front feet to eat. Interestingly, when reindeer walk you will also hear a clicking sound which are the tendons in their feet and means the herd can stay together in low visibility.

“So, when we were concerned about Snowflake’s vision, we took her straight to the RVC. Our experience with the institution has been fantastic. Dr Alex McSloy has been a great help over the years with her knowledge of reindeer which has been passed on to other veterinary trainees. Dr Marie Fischer is a brilliant ophthalmological surgeon who did a great job removing the initial tumour on Snowflake’s eye and subsequently her second eyelid.”

Notes to Editors

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About the RVC

  • The Royal Veterinary College (RVC) is the UK's largest and longest established independent veterinary school and is a Member Institution of the University of London.
  • It is one of the few veterinary schools in the world that hold accreditations from the RCVS in the UK (with reciprocal recognition from the AVBC for Australasia, the VCI for Ireland and the SAVC for South Africa), the EAEVE in the EU, and the AVMA in the USA and Canada.
  • The RVC is ranked as the top veterinary school in the world in the QS World University Rankings by subject, 2023.
  • The RVC offers undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in veterinary medicine, veterinary nursing and biological sciences.
  • The RVC is a research led institution with 88% of its research rated as internationally excellent or world class in the Research Excellence Framework 2021.
  • The RVC provides animal owners and the veterinary profession with access to expert veterinary care and advice through its teaching hospitals and first opinion practices in London and Hertfordshire

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