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Animal Hospital

An "unusual patient"

München, 11/17/2017

Jacky was 6 months old when her health problems began. She was afflicted with repeated fainting fits. The vet said the raccoon was suffering from AV block, one of the many types of cardiac arrhythmia. Jacky needed a pacemaker.

Jacky was abandoned by her mother when she was very young and was reared by hand. When her owners brought her to the vet because she often fainted, the vet soon diagnosed the cause of the problem. Jacky’s heartbeat had become irregular, due to a phenomenon known as atrioventricular block. In patients with AV block a condition, the nerve impulses that control the heart’s contractions, are transmitted from the atrium to the ventricles only after some delay or not at all. As a result, the rate of contraction is abnormally low. At first, the irregular rhythm is sufficient to ensure survival, but it may cause the patient to faint. When Jacky’s illness was diagnosed, her heart rate had fallen to 60 beats per minute, well below the normal rate (for a raccoon) of 200 beats/min. Only a cardiac pacemaker could save her.

The first raccoon ever to receive a pacemaker
In Europe, very few veterinary surgeons and clinics perform heart operations on animals at all. Professor Gerhard Wess, Director of the Cardiology Department at LMU’s Animal Hospital (Medizinische Kleintierklinik), is one of the surgeons with the necessary expertise. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s a dog, a cat, a raccoon or a polar bear – the structure of the heart is essentially the same“, he explains. “But as a heart specialist dedicated to the care of animals, it makes me particularly happy when I am in a position to help an “unusual” animal.” For Wess, heart operations are quite routine. As one of the world’s leading specialists in veterinary cardiology, he implants around 30 pacemakers a year, most of them in dogs. However, the operation is more challenging when the patient‘s weight is as low, and her heart so small as in Jacky’s case.

In the first step, an electrode is first introduced into the jugular vein, guided along the vein into the heart, and anchored in place. The other end of the electrode is connected to the pacemaker, which is placed under the skin in a pocket near the shoulder blade. The instrument monitors the heartrate and intervenes only when it falls below a defined level. After the operation, the “unusual” patient rapidly recovered and has now returned to her owners in Rheinland-Pfalz.