Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Pacemakers for Pooches, Cats, Ferrets and Horses Too!


Pet Column for the week of March 30, 2009


Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Ashley Mitek
Information Specialist

It has been over 50 years since the first pacemaker was implanted in a human in 1958. Although the first attempt only worked for a few hours, pacemakers are now frequently used in humans with a slow or irregular heartbeat. But these devices are not just reserved for use in humans. Our four legged friends benefit from them as well.

Dr. Kathryn Meurs is a veterinary cardiologist at Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine. She also helps run the Companion Animal Pacemaker Repository, also known as CanPacers. It is a non-profit organization that helps provide pacemakers to veterinary patients throughout the country.

"In 2008 we sent out 204 devices, including specific leads and generators," says Dr. Meurs. They implant around one or two pacemakers each month at the teaching hospital in Pullman, Wash. Depending on the species and the individual cardiologist or surgeon performing the procedure, the device can either be implanted surgically or threaded through a blood vessel in the neck down to the heart.

After the procedure, the patient is asked to revisit the teaching hospital every two weeks for the first month and then is seen once a year. "Depending on why the animal received the pacemaker, many patients live a very long life with the device," says Dr. Meurs. If in use for a very long time, sometimes the batteries (generator) need replacing or a new generator is needed, but these are easy to fix and the unit does not need to be disassembled.

While years ago CanPacers could accept used pacemakers from humans, today this is not allowed. "Everything we send out is new and has never been used," notes Dr. Meurs. Although they can no longer use pacemakers that had been used in humans, all of the devices they send out are made for use in human patients and are easily programmed for the specific animal's heart rate.

Pacemakers can be used in almost any veterinary patient, big or small. Age is not a prohibitive factor either. From a young puppy to an old goat, the devices can be used to correct electrical problems with the heart. In most cases the pacemakers correct one of two problems: either an abnormally slow heart rate, called bradycardia, or an irregular heartbeat, called an arrhythmia.

Years ago pacemakers were about the size of an orange, while today they are a little bigger than a sliver dollar. With the advent of cell phones, some cardiologists have recommended that those with pacemakers use the phone on the opposite side of the body than where the pacemaker is placed. So the next time your lab, or better yet, your thoroughbred, tries to answer its phone on the same side that the pacemaker is on, remind it to use the other paw or hoof.

For more information on artificial pacemakers for veterinary patients, visit the CanPacers website at www.canpacers.com.