The first dog to undergo life-saving open heart surgery in the U.S. is expected to live, after receiving the inaugural operation at the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine. The 12-year-old miniature poodle, named George, spent seven hours on the operation table and a week in the intensive care unit.
The good boy has already progressed to taking two 45-minute walks a day and is expected to make a full recovery within three months, never needing treatment for canine degenerative mitral valve disease again.
In June, commercial real estate attorney Kimberley David of Seattle was caught in a standstill, left without options to save her dying dog. David’s world came crashing down when George’s veterinarian diagnosed her pride and joy with mitral valve degeneration (MVD), a condition that gave the small pup no longer than nine months to live.
“My first question was, what could be done?” she said. Unfortunately for her, David’s question alluded to no answer at the time, as George’s doctor responded with, “absolutely nothing.”
Bringing him into her family at the age of eight weeks, David was not willing to let go of George so easily. To her, there had to be a way to help him, and she intended to find what exactly it was. After seeking a second opinion from another canine cardiologist, David learned of a rare surgical repair for dogs with mitral valve degeneration effective only in four cities in the world: Yokohama, Japan, London, England, Cambridgeshire, UK, and Gainesville, Florida.
A program that has been in the works since before the pandemic, this Open Heart Surgery Program came to life for the very first time in the U.S. at UF Small Animal Hospital, part of the university’s College of Veterinary Medicine. The program officially began Aug. 22, the day of George’s surgery.
Dr. Darcy Adin, a veterinary cardiologist, is the program’s director, helping appoint Dr. Katsuhiro Matsuura as lead surgeon. Adin said Matsuura was recruited from Japan through professional connections he previously had with veterinary cardiologists at the university.
“Given the shared commitment of UF and Dr. Matsuura to this goal of bringing surgical mitral valve repair to the States,” Dr. Adin said in an email, “we were excited to be able to pursue this by bringing Dr. Matsuura on as part of our faculty team.”
With her sights set on scheduling surgery for George, David made contact with Dr. Adin and Dr. Matsuura in the summer over a Zoom call, where the three discussed George’s condition and candidacy for the open heart surgery.
“I, by the grace of God, caught right in the nick of time,” David said. “So, George ended up becoming the very first patient there.”
Before her dog could even be considered by the two, David was required to schedule cardiovascular pretests for George, which she said cost her up to $2000.
After weeks of planning and completing prerequisite examinations for Dr. Adin and Dr. Matsuura, David was at last approved for the surgery and made her way from Maryland, where she was temporarily staying with family, to Gainesville just days before the surgery was scheduled.
“Everyone was warm, welcoming and bent over backwards to make me and George feel comfortable,” she said about first arriving at the Small Animal Hospital.
Following an intake appointment for George on Aug. 21, David, with her second miniature poodle, Louise, sat patiently in the lobby twiddling her thumbs and biting her nails while George underwent his mitral valve repair.
More closely classified as canine degenerative mitral valve disease (MVD) in dogs, mitral valve degeneration results from the enlargement or prolapse of the heart, causing the valve to leak and not receive adequate blood flow. Medical professionals say small to medium-sized dogs are most at risk to develop the disease during their lifetime.
After seven hours of uncertainty, David anxiously joined Dr. Matsuura and his assistant, Dr. Michael Aherne, in the examination room, where they informed her of the success of the surgery.
At the time, David was unaware that George was patient zero of the Open Heart Surgery Program at UF. However, had she been, she said she would not have felt added fear due to her familiarity with Dr. Matsuura’s experience in veterinary cardiology. He has performed about 110 mitral valve repair surgeries in Japan, making George his 111th, she said.
“I love dogs and cats,” Dr. Matsuura said in an email. “Every day, I am thinking about how I can contribute to the health of animals.”
Dr. Matsuura was boarded on to UF faculty for the Open Heart Surgery Program following previous plans for Dr. Masami Uechi, veterinary cardiologist in Yokohama, to lead surgical procedures in 2019. The program was later postponed by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and Uechi, who had a 90% success rate for canine degenerative MVD surgery, was no longer involved in the program.
After remaining in intensive care for about a week post-surgery, George was discharged from the hospital and remained in Gainesville until his post-op check-up.
“Do not take no for an answer,” David said about the general population of dog owners. “If your local vet tells you, ‘there is nothing to be done for your pet,’ keep pushing.”
Since George, the Open Heart Surgery Program has conducted six more surgeries, said Dr. Aherne. Faculty anticipate a rate of around three procedures a month.