K-9 defibrillator tweaked; monitoring and beat go on

“And the beat goes on. Yeah, the beat goes on …”

In the case of Honus, Pullman’s most celebrated, high-tech, K-9 patient, these old lyrics pretty much tell the story.

Last month, as you may recall, Honus was the world’s first pooch to successfully receive a cardiac defibrillator, thanks to physicians at Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. And today, the beat indeed does goes on, as it is monitored, recorded and adjusted.

At his recent one-month checkup, a survey of the device showed that the defibrillator adjusted at least eight episodes of irregular heartbeats since it had been installed. An exciting result of this was that neither Honus nor his owners were aware that the small device was doing its job.

“Clearly, Honus’ quality of life has improved, and years have most likely been added to his life,” said veterinary cardiologist Dr. Lynne Nelson. “So far, everything seems to be just fine.”

Nelson and veterinary cardiology resident Dr. Sunshine Lahmers performed the groundbreaking surgery in May to relieve the two-year-old male boxer of a life-threatening irregular heartbeat.

Honus began his medical journey one morning in February after his owners, Bryan and Colleen MacDonald, of Pullman, noticed his heart beating furiously against his chest wall, even as he rested.

Concerned, they rushed Honus to the WSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital, where his resting heart rate was monitored at more than 250 beats per minute. He was diagnosed with a genetic abnormality called “boxer cardiomyopathy.” This disease affects up to 40 percent of the breed, though most cases are not life threatening.

But for Honus, the ailment disturbs electrical conduction that can cause his heart to beat too rapidly, a condition known as “ventricular tachycardia.” This condition can result in weakness, collapse or even sudden death. Honus was first treated with drugs to control the problem, but after several months, the frequency of the episodes increased and his condition continued to deteriorate.

Because each episode was becoming progressively harder for Honus to tolerate, his doctors knew they would need to do something different or he would likely die.

“If Honus was a person, the most appropriate treatment would be to install a defibrillator in him,” Nelson said. So she inquired about this possibility to Medtronic, Inc., a Minneapolis-based company that makes implantable medical devices and frequently donates pacemakers to the college to install in dogs and cats.

Luckily, the company came through once again for WSU by donating a defibrillator to save Honus.

Installed in approximately 80,000 people each year, defibrillators are designed to send an electrical shock to the heart that helps reestablish normal contraction rhythms during dangerous arrhythmia or in cardiac arrest. In recent years, small implantable defibrillators about the size of a small pager have been developed.

Installing a defibrillator is quite similar to pacemaker surgery, Dr. Nelson said, who installs approximately 12 to 15 pacemakers in dogs and cats each year.

“The surgery is not terribly difficult; testing the device is the only concern,” she said. “In Honus’ case, the device works very well.”

As proof, Honus emerged from his four-hour surgery unscathed and stable. Within one week of the operation, the amiable boxer was returned home to his loving family.

Honus’ particular device with its parts, leads, and surgery cost approximately $30,000. Medtronics donated the defibrillator and leads, and the MacDonald’s and the WSU veterinary college shared a $2,500 expense for the surgery and attendant services.

While the defibrillator is fully functional, the U.S. Federal Drug Administration no longer approves that particular model. In fact, the FDA discontinues most models after about four years, Nelson said, but added that Honus’ defibrillator works like new and will likely outlast him.

“WSU’s veterinary community is proud to have been part of this first-ever surgical procedure for the benefit of Honus, our students, and the veterinary profession,” said Dr. Warwick Bayly, dean of the veterinary college. “This case represented a world-class teaching opportunity and we’re grateful to the owners and Medtronics.”

After the surgery, Honus became a subject for national and international media. After the first local news reports of Honus’ case, CBS and FOX news channels aired his story live from WSU’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital. Inquiries about the story were also received from NBC, CNN, “People” magazine, “Time” magazine, “Inside Edition,” The New York Post, In Touch Weekly, The National Enquirer, The National Examiner, and British newspapers.

Though Honus’ operation was a success, it remains to be seen if his case will open the door for other dogs with heart problems to receive defibrillators.

Regardless of the treatment, Dr. Nelson says Honus may still develop heart failure from his disease later in life. A defibrillation system can prevent fatal arrhythmias, but it cannot cure their cause.

Still, Honus’ owners and veterinarians remain optimistic.

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