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Prehistoric saber-toothed cats and dire wolves suffered from a developmental joint disease that also affects their modern relatives and humans, according to Science Magazine.
In a new study, veterinarian Hugo Schmökel and a team of palaeontologists analyzed the well-preserved bones of more than 1,000 saber-toothed cats and 500 dire wolves. The remains date back to between 55,000 and 12,000 years ago.
The researchers noticed a series of indentations on the surfaces of the bone, which Schmökel – who specializes in orthopedic problems in cats and dogs – explained as clear signs of osteochondritis dissecans (OCD).
OCD is a condition that causes parts of the bone and cartilage to deteriorate and break off because of the lack of blood flow. It usually affects joint areas that bear the brunt of movement, such as knees and shoulders.
The findings showed that the disease was very prevalent in the femur bones of saber-toothed cats, while dire wolves showed OCD more in the shoulder joints and knees.
Researchers explained that these differences have to do with the hunting strategies of each animal: The extinct felines were ambush predators and would pounce on their prey, while the canines pursued their food over long distances.
However, this condition did not seem to affect their hunting abilities – Schmökel suggested that their pain levels were a “two or three, with better days and worse days.”
The authors theorized that OCD became more common nearer the predators’ extinction about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. As their numbers shrank, they interbred with each other and incidentally increased the prevalence of OCD.
While some scientists are skeptical of the hypothesis, others praised the findings for “studying ‘less charismatic’ cases” that provide more insight into the lives of these animals.