Pacemaker for a Pet: Cornell Veterinary College and Shamrock Animal Fund help

Cornell Veterinary College operating room. (Matt Mulcahy)

Shelby is a rescue. Adopted ten years ago by the family of a 7 year old girl named Kasey. The McDonough's embraced the Wheaton Terrier at the North Shore Animal League. The family moved from downstate New York to Central New York and, of course, Shelby came along.

"She's my best friend, my everything," said Kasey about Shelby.

Kasey's bond with her dog grew deeper when Kasey's mother died suddenly last year at the age of 38.

Just a few weeks ago while hiking at Green Lakes State Park in Fayetteville Shelby suddenly collapsed something was clearly wrong. Now 17 years old, Kasey took on the responsibility of finding answers for her dog. The veterinarians at Stack Hospital for Pets in Fayetteville diagnosed a low heart rate. While some suggested Shelby's end may be near, Kasey held on to the link with her mother by pursuing more care for Shelby.

"I lost my mom last year so in a way she's a piece of her and I can't let go yet."


The next stop: an appointment with veterinary cardiologist Dr. Eva Oxford at the Veterinary Medical Center of Central New York. An electrocardiogram revealed a complete heart block. "She needed crazy medical attention," said Kasey. "She suggested going to Cornell to get a pacemaker. It was estimated as $4,000 to 6,000 and almost wasn't an option."


That's when Kasey looked for help and got it through the Shamrock Animal Fund. Kasey searched Facebook and found the fund based in the Syracuse area that helps pay for veterinary care for animals in need who have owners with financial limitations. "I went to Facebook and got some help," said Kasey. "I met Jamie from Shamrock fund." Jamie Pomilio-Mulcahy, Shamrock Animal Fund co-founder, made sure to follow up with the 17 year old senior at Jamesville-Dewitt High School. Kasey appreciated the extra nudge from Jamie to pursue funding to help Shelby get the pacemaker.

"She funded me 500 dollars to get it started." Jamie explained to Kasey that Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine Patient Assistance Fund also could provide financial assistance. "The Cornell Financial assistance program helped a lot, took a big chunk off," Kasey said crediting both Funds. "Honestly it wouldn't have been possible without them."

Kasey also started her own GoFundMe page. She met more than 95% of her fundraising goal.


Two weeks after Shelby's collapse at Green Lakes State Park she had her appointment at Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine in Ithaca, NY to be evaluated for a pacemaker.

Cornell's team examined Shelby. Listened to her heart and performed an echocardiogram or ultra sound image of the heart. Dr. Romain Pariaut, cardiologist, explained to Kasey and her boyfriend Matthew the specifics of the procedure. They make two incisions in the neck. One to insert the electrode leads and the other to implant the pacemaker generator and battery.

"We insert the electrode into the vein," said Dr. Pariaut. "So we use the vein to guide us into the heart." He acknowledged there are risks during the procedure and postoperatively. But, he was confident the Cornell team could successfully implant the device. It would restore Shelby's heart rate and give her renewed energy.


The surgery suite is bustling with faculty, residents and students of the Veterinary College. The anesthesiology team cares for Shelby as if she was their own dog. They use a soft touch and give her warm strokes even as they poke her with IV needles and wrap an external pacemaker around her abdomen. There is quiet conversation. There is instruction from the widely experienced faculty in Cardiology and Anesthesiology down the line to well trained residents and newer veterinary students.

Taking extensive precautions to avoid an infection is critical to a successful outcome. All of the surgical staff wears gowns, gloves and masks. Shelby is carefully draped with sterile sheets. The device and instruments are kept pristine.


Technicians, Anesthesiologists and Cardiologists all watch closely as the Pacemaker implantation procedure progresses.

"It's teamwork. That's why we like to work with the same people," said Dr. Pariaut. "We don't have to talk to each other to understand what we have to do. The anesthesia team was focusing on the heart rate and breathing was fine. We could focus on the procedure itself."


The image on the fluoroscopy screen viewed by the cardiologists shows the lead of the pacemaker that runs from the neck through the jugular vein into the heart. The darkened shadow surround the last third of the lead is the heart. The tip of the lead has grooves so it can be screwed and fastened into the heart muscle. The tip is also treated in steroidal medication to reduce inflammation at the point of insertion.

"The pacemaker as you can see is in place and working fine we tested it. everything looks good at this point. We're very happy," Dr. Romain Pariaut


At Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine Companion Animal Hospital in 2017:

  1. Case load went up 20%
  2. Patient assistance went up 43%
  3. 130 animals benefited from patient assistance

Dr. Margret Thompson, Hospital Director, sees the increasing need coming from two avenues. The patients coming to Cornell for veterinary care are coming from a wider geographical area, especially to receive specialty care. She also believes pet owners understand they can afford Cornell's care if they get some help.

The the increased demand on the Patient Assistance Fund has reduced the amount of aide available per patient. It is solely funded through donations. Dr. Thompson says occasionally there are larger gifts, but most of the money comes from other pet owners who have benefited from the Cornell experience.

"They saw or heard about a case in the waiting room and understood that individual was going to be challenged to take care of that pet, but was trying to do what was best." Dr. Margret Thompson on the remarkable generosity of individual donors to the Cornell Patient Assistance Fund.

Dr. Thompson also credits another important element.

"One other thing that's helpful is partnership with other organizations like the Shamrock Animal Fund because they help us aide additional people and help us give a little bit more."

Click here to donate to the Shamrock Animal Fund.

Click here to give to Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine Patient Assistance Fund.

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