New heart procedure at WSU offers hope for French bulldogs, other dogs

Closeup a French bulldog in the arms of an anesthesia technician.
Spike, a French bulldog, became the first patient to have a pulmonary valve stent implanted at WSU's Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Pullman. (photo by College of Veterinary Medicine/Ted S. Warren)

Lucy Fromherz couldn’t resist falling in love with Spike even though she knew the French bulldog was living on borrowed time.

Spike was born with a deadly heart defect called pulmonic stenosis, which has become increasingly common in French bulldogs, one of the most popular dog breeds in the United States.

The Fromherz family now has hope Spike will live a longer and healthier life after he was one of the first two dogs at Washington State University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital to undergo a pulmonary valve stent implantation, a procedure performed at only a handful of facilities in the country.

“The owners were so grateful because they love these dogs, and they felt like there was nothing else they could do,” said Dr. Anna Golden, a veterinary resident in WSU’s cardiology service. “This new procedure allowed us to offer them hope and more quality time with their pets.”

Pulmonic stenosis, one of the most common congenital heart defects in dogs, occurs when the pulmonary valve, which allows blood to flow from the heart to the lungs, narrows and causes the heart’s right ventricle to pump harder. Dogs such as Spike who have a severe form of stenosis often develop right-sided congestive heart failure and rarely live past 3–5 years of age.

A French bulldog lies on an operating table while being prepared for surgery.
Spike, a French bulldog under anesthesia, is prepared for a procedure to have a pulmonary valve stent implanted (photo by College of Veterinary Medicine/Ted S. Warren).

Until recently, the only surgical option offered at WSU was balloon valvuloplasty, in which a catheter is used to guide a specialized balloon through a vein into the dog’s heart. There, the balloon is inflated and deflated, then removed to create a larger opening in the valve allowing blood to flow more easily.

In November WSU’s cardiology team received training for the stent procedure when they hosted Dr. Kursten Pierce, a cardiologist at the North Carolina State University. Pierce also oversaw the first procedures, performed by cardiologists Drs. Ryan Baumwart and Lynne Nelson, and cardiology residents Drs. Kya Fedora-Degarmo and Golden, with the assistance of veterinary technician Genevieve Rojas, veterinary technician assistant Kylee Dietz and veterinary students.

“We were all very impressed with Dr. Pierce,” Baumwart said. “It was very selfless on her part to come to Pullman to train us in this life-saving procedure.”

The new procedure is similar to ballooning, except a small stent is left in the valve to ensure it remains open after the balloon is removed.

Stenting is more effective for dogs with severe pulmonic stenosis and in breeds like French bulldogs that have smaller and narrower valves. It is also a secondary option for dogs with anatomy not suitable for ballooning and for those that have undergone ballooning but experienced a return of the issue, called restenosis.

“Frenchies are notorious for having smaller valve areas, and so that makes the traditional ballooning procedure less effective,” Baumwart said. “In these cases, we see more instances of restenosis, where the valve closes back up. That’s what we dealt with for both Spike and the other patient.”

An anesthesia technician calms a French bulldog standing on a table.
Anesthesia technician Kim Somerlott works with Spike, a French bulldog, in the anesthesia department of WSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine in Pullman (photo by Ted Warren/WSU College of Veterinary Medicine).

It is too soon to know the long-term outlook for Spike, but his care team is optimistic.

“We don’t have any long-term data on this procedure, but we have enough collective information from the cardiology community that we’re hopeful this is going to lengthen his life,” Nelson said.

Fromherz is grateful to WSU for the support, guidance, and extra time with Spike.

“I have a lot of hope that we’re going to maybe see him live to 4 or 5 years old, and if we get anything past that, then it would be gravy,” she said. “We are just totally in love with Spike, and we appreciate every day we have with him.”

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