It was already 8 p.m. when 3-year-old Japanese Spitz Kiska started fainting. “I’ve seen dogs have seizures,” says owner Cora Fortin. “It wasn’t like that. It was a faint. She just like wobbled and fell over. In about a minute, she started waking up.” Ten minutes later, Kiska fainted again.
Horrified by this alarming behavior, Fortin and her husband, Roy Nelson, wasted no time in packing her off to a 24-hour emergency clinic in Plano, Texas, where they live.
At the emergency hospital, “They were like ‘Oh, my God. What is it?’” Fortin recalls. “They did an EKG, and they could immediately see that her heartbeat would get faster and faster and faster, then stop.” That’s when Kiska would lose consciousness. Her heart would “start again very faintly,” Fortin says.
It turned out the little dog had a complete atrioventricular block, meaning her heart’s parts weren’t communicating, so it couldn’t function properly.
“We’re like: ‘What do we do?’ We’re thinking, ‘pills, injections?’ He said, ‘There’s nothing you can do except get a pacemaker.’”
Neither Fortin nor her husband even knew dogs could get pacemakers.
Fortunately for them, Plano is about four and a half hours from College Station, home to the Texas A&M Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital where cardiologists implant about 25 pacemakers each year. (Check out “Pacemakers Keep Dogs’ Hearts Beating” to find out more about this procedure.)
The emergency vet “got a cardiologist on the phone, sent the EKG, and the guy said, ‘you need to get that dog down here as fast as you can.’”
After making a quick stop at home to pick up Roxie, their other Japanese Spitz, the couple headed to College Station. Kiska continued to faint, then recover, then faint and recover about every 10 minutes for the entire drive.
The Perfect Little Dog
The white fluff ball came to Cora and Roy’s home as a puppy from a breeder in California.
Prior to that, Roy’s daughter had adopted an American Eskimo that she was told was a Japanese Spitz. “Turned out it wasn’t,” says Cora, who got interested in the breed and did some research. “We decided we wanted one. They’re so cool. No doggie smell at all. I never have to wash them ever. It’s just amazing.”
Soon after they got Kiska, they knew they’d like to have another dog just like her. So, they contacted her breeder, saying they’d like an adult when one became available. Almost three years later, their email was returned, informing them a female was retiring from breeding and could be purchased.
In the course of working out the details, Cora got a photo of the dog. She thought she looked a lot like Kiska. She soon learned that the now 7-year-old Roxie was Kiska’s mother.
When Roy and Cora got Roxie to their house, they immediately let her out of her kennel and took her to the backyard to relieve herself. While she was outside, Cora let Kiska out of her kennel. She says Kiska sniffed Roxie’s kennel. “You could tell her attitude was, ‘there’s a dog in my house.’ Then she got really excited. You could see the recognition on her face.”
Next, they let Kiska into the backyard. “They recognized each other immediately. They ran circles around each other for half an hour. It was so cool!” Today, Cora and Roy joke that Kiska’s mother “moved to Texas to retire with her.”
It wasn’t long after Roxie joined the family that Kiska had her fainting episode.
Finally in College Station
It took hours of nighttime driving, during which Kiska continued to faint, for the distressed family to reach College Station. When the couple walked into Texas A&M, the staff was waiting. “Roy had Kiska in his arms. A woman jumped up from behind the counter and asked, ‘Is this Kiska?’ They did the surgery that night.”
Implanting a pacemaker is a pretty straightforward procedure. The battery goes into a pocket under the muscle on the back of the neck. A lead runs down to the heart to regulate its beating.
“She went through it very well,” Cora says. “They kept her most of the next day just to make sure everything was working well. At 3 p.m., we were able to take her home.”
The couple piled up pillows and blankets on the back seat for the ride home. Because she was taking pain medication and antibiotics, Kiska was “fairly lethargic” during the drive. She sported a bright blue bandage around her neck and chest to protect the two tiny incisions, and, once home, was ensconced on her favorite couch. “We had to try not to let her do much jumping or running for the first couple of weeks,” Cora says, a tall order for the enthusiastic dog who likes to chase bugs and lizards, and run around the backyard with Roxie.
After one month, Kiska had a checkup in College Station and had her bandages removed.
It’s the Bug’s Fault!
It turns out that Kiska wasn’t born with a heart condition, nor did she have some genetic predisposition to develop a problem. Most likely she ate a kissing bug. Yes, a bug. From the bug’s fecal material, which carried the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi, Kiska developed Chagas’ disease, a common illness in South and Central America in both people and animals that’s been creeping into the southern United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s now on the CDC’s list of neglected parasitic infections targeted for public health action.
Just like canine pacemakers, Cora and Roy had never heard of kissing bugs or Chagas, but Cora’s certain the bug was probably living in the brick terraces of their backyard and curious Kiska got hold of one.
After the parasite is ingested – or enters through the skin or mucous membrane – symptoms can emerge, such as fever or swelling where the parasite entered. Or there can be none, as in Kiska’s case.
However, once the infection, sometimes called American trypanosomiasis, takes hold, it is never completely gone. An animal or person might live an entire life with no further evidence of the condition. Or, it may do life-threatening damage.
Kiska’s was the first case of a dog being diagnosed with Chagas’ disease in northern Texas, Fortin says. Since then, at least five more dogs have died after contracting it. “Lord knows how many others,” she says, because it’s only identifiable by a blood test. And if a dog has no symptoms, then dies from organ failure, the true cause is unlikely to be discovered without a necropsy – a canine autopsy.
Almost as Good as New
In April 2012, Kiska had her six-month checkup. “Everything’s great,” Fortin reports. “You would never know anything was wrong. You wouldn’t know it unless I told you.”
Cora and Roy are so grateful that Kiska wears a Texas A&M collar now, despite the fact that he is a huge Oklahoma fan and their home has its own “Oklahoma room.”
Because of the pacemaker’s placement, Kiska walks on a harness now, rather than a leash. A mobile groomer comes to the house because the shop where she was previously groomed was concerned about the possibility of something happening while there. Her boarding kennel has also declined to house her since the surgery.
“We work around it,” Fortin says. Kiska now stays with friends when Cora and Roy travel.
Although the pacemaker keeps Kiska’s heart working and would normally give her a full life span, it is possible that the Chagas will re-emerge in the future. What organ might be affected is unknown.
That just makes the couple more appreciate their time with Kiska.
Soon she will turn 4, and Cora says that “every day that we have with her is a blessing that Texas A&M gave to us.”