Pacemakers In Pets: Musings On The Bleeding Edge Of Veterinary Medicine

Patty Khuly, DVM
Updated: December 16, 2014
Published: September 16, 2006
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"Oh, no…now they’ve gone too far!" a friend exclaimed, "Dogs and cats have no business getting pacemakers. It’s obscene and ridiculous!"

As you might guess, I disagreed with her. If Mr. Porsche wants to get his favorite hunting dog, Jake, a pacemaker so they can keep killing ducks, who am I to stand in their way?

As, a vet, you might think this opinion is self-serving. But I won’t be making money from Jake’s malady—it`s the specialists in vet medicine that rake it in when we need to reach out to the bleeding edge to save our pets.

And if this monied lawyer wants to spend a fraction of the amount he spent on his car on his beloved pet instead, what’s the harm? Ducks notwithstanding.

Indeed, pacemakers are not the only high-tech offerings on the raw edge of veterinary medicine. Consider kidney transplants, open-heart surgery, radiation therapy, even gene therapy.

Tertiary care centers such as vet school teaching hospitals are the primary sites for these therapies. The procedures are often experimental and therefore accompanied by lots of students, multiple clinicians, and huge expenses.

In veterinary medicine it’s hard to find companies willing to fund research for esoteric therapies (like heart transplants) so owners fund it instead. Companies (like pacemaker manufacturers) just don’t stand to gain much in a market that’s never going to rival the human market for volume or profitability.

After all, it’s well understood that most people aren’t going to fork out $20K on a kidney transplant for their cat. And pet insurance is not going to cover these really expensive, experimental procedures.

Just as in human medicine, clinical trials are sometimes available for pets requiring specific therapies. They’re not exactly common, but a sophisticated consumer willing to travel with their pet, leave their job and live in another city for awhile might just manage one of these opportunities. Fat chance but…you never know.

Most of my clients roll their eyes when I mention cutting edge treatments (and their price tags), but there are always a few willing to take the leap. It takes these dedicated people to take experimental procedures in veterinary medicine to the next level. And if they have to drive a Toyota instead of a Lexus to make it happen, I’m all for it.