How far would you go to save your dog’s life? Some people are traveling to France and Japan so their dogs can receive life-saving surgery
By Kim Campbell Thornton
Andrews McMeel Syndication
Chuck was diagnosed with a loud heart murmur when he was 6 years old, but the black-and-tan cavalier’s heart wasn’t enlarged, and he didn’t need any medication to control the condition. That changed last fall, when the then-10-year-old dog started coughing.
Chuck was a victim of mitral valve disease, also known as chronic valvular disease. It’s the most common form of heart disease in older dogs. Small breeds such as dachshunds, poodles and Chihuahuas are primarily at risk, but Chuck is a cavalier King Charles spaniel, a breed that typically develops the disease earlier in life than other small dogs.
His veterinary cardiologist found that Chuck’s heart was enlarging quickly and prescribed medication, but it didn’t help. By December, Chuck’s cough was worse, and his lungs had started to fill with fluid, a sign of congestive heart failure. Additional medications were prescribed, but Chuck’s owners were given the devastating news that their dog likely had only months to live.
“I went home, cried for a couple of days and then started Googling,” says Holly Johnson-Modafferi of Boston.
She learned of a veterinary surgeon in Japan who had performed a successful repair of the mitral valve. Chuck’s cardiologist was familiar with the surgery, but warned that the seven-month waiting period to bring a dog into Japan would probably preclude Chuck from getting there in time. Holly went back to Google and discovered that the Japanese veterinarian, Masami Uechi, also performed the surgery in France every other month, in partnership with two French veterinarians, Jean-Hugues Bozon, DVM, and Sabine Bozon, DVM.
“Once I started finding out the details, I talked to Mike (Modafferi, her husband), and we decided we were going to make it happen,” she says.
Along with three other couples who followed similar paths of discovery, Holly and Mike flew to France with Chuck last month. (Full disclosure: My husband and I, with our cavalier Harper, were one of those couples.)
The complex surgery involves stopping the dog’s heart, with life support provided by a heart-lung bypass machine. The mitral valve is reshaped, and stretched or broken chordae tendineae (known as the heart strings) are replaced with expanded PTFE, a lightweight but powerful material used in everything from medical devices implanted in the body to high-tech expedition clothing.
The surgery, which has been performed nearly 700 times over a dozen years, has a success rate of 90 percent. Barring other health problems or accidents, the dogs go on to live a normal lifespan. For a cavalier or other small breed or mix, that can mean living to be 13 to 17 years old.
A group of owners whose dogs have had the surgery have formed the Mighty Hearts Project to increase awareness of the surgery among pet owners and veterinarians. They hope that eventually it will become available in North America.
“We’ve assembled not a team, but a family of people whose dogs have undergone this same surgery to support others in their quest to save their dogs,” says one of the founders, Nate Estes of Newbury Park, California, whose Maltese, Zoey, had the surgery nearly a year ago when she was 5 years old.
The four dogs who underwent surgery last month are back home after a week of hospitalization. They face a three-month recovery period that requires owners to keep them from running and jumping while they heal. That’s not always easy, but afterward they can live normal, active lives.
It was expensive, but Holly says she’d do it again. And she has some advice for owners of dogs prone to MVD: Buy pet health insurance now, and start a slush fund for your dog in case he needs surgery one day.
How to care for
Q: I’ve just acquired a bearded dragon. What should I know about taking care of him? -- via email
A: Congratulations on your new reptile companion! Bearded dragons are popular because of their small size, quiet nature and variety of colors. They enjoy basking in the sun and are typically active during the day. With good care, you can expect your bearded dragon to live eight to 12 years.
Even though they aren’t especially large, bearded dragons need a good-size habitat. A 40- to 55-gallon aquarium is the minimum amount of space you should provide. Larger is better. You’ll need to equip his living area with full-spectrum lighting for 12 hours a day. He also needs an appropriate temperature range. During the day, he should be able to move from a hot basking area that ranges from 95 degrees Fahrenheit to 105 degrees Fahrenheit to a slightly cooler area of no less than 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Other important features are a box or other area where he can hide, and surfaces on which he can climb and bask.
Bearded dragons eat a variety of insects and leafy greens. Juvenile bearded dragons will thrive on crickets, mealworms and other gut-loaded insects offered daily, but as they mature, they eat more vegetable matter. Offer a daily buffet of dark leafy greens and shredded veggies. Ask your veterinarian to recommend an appropriate vitamin and mineral supplement for your bearded dragon’s life stage.
Take your bearded dragon to a veterinarian who specializes in reptile care. A visit every six to 12 months will help to ensure that he’s in good condition and isn’t carrying any internal parasites such as pinworms or coccidia. Common health problems include fungal dermatitis (yellow fungus), obesity, constipation from chronic dehydration, poor diet, lack of exercise and, believe it or not, periodontal disease. Yes, you should brush your bearded dragon’s teeth! Your veterinarian can advise you on the best technique. -- Dr. Marty Becker
Do you have a pet question? Send it to email@example.com or visit Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker.
Animals have friends
in Connecticut courts
-- Connecticut is the first state to provide animals with court-appointed representatives in abuse and cruelty cases, NPR reports. One of the eight volunteer advocates may be appointed by a judge or requested by defense attorneys or prosecutors. The advocates may testify in cases, do investigative work, conduct interviews, make arguments, write briefs and make recommendations to judges, according to an AP report. Animal law is an emerging specialty, and at least nine law schools offer courses in the subject.
-- Does music help to calm pets? Veterinarian Ross Henderson thinks so. He practices at Fox Hollow Animal Hospital in Lakewood, Colorado, and he has been known to break out his guitar and sing a song to animals who are nervous before they undergo surgery or other procedures. Playing soft classical or jazz music when pets are left alone is a standard recommendation when pets suffer from separation anxiety. Pet-friendly music is also becoming a fixture in the lobbies and exam rooms of veterinary clinics that practice Fear Free techniques. Why does music seem to affect animals in a positive way? In humans, it has been shown to have relaxing effects by slowing heart and respiratory rates. Animals may experience the same physiological benefits.
-- The pixiebob isn’t a mythical creature. The usually brown-spotted tabby cat with the bobbed tail has the look of a bobcat -- from which he takes his name -- but he’s a domestic cat through and through. Loyal, loving and lively, the relatively new cat breed was developed in the 1980s by Carol Ann Brewer. The name "pixiebob" references the female kitten who inspired her to create the short-tailed breed. Besides their wild appearance, pixiebobs stand out for their extra toes, a characteristic called polydactylism. Their coats can be short or long, and they weigh 10 to 18 pounds. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. They are affiliated with Vetstreet.com and are the authors of many best-selling pet-care books. Joining them is dog trainer and behavior consultant Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at Facebook.com/KimCampbellThornton and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.