FORT MYERS, Fla. — An 8-year-old miniature poodle, who was rescued from a Kentucky animal shelter, needed some rescuing again.
Karamel, a feisty, funny member of the Ransom household in east Lee County, Fla., bounces around and gets excited for hand-fed treats.
When the Ransoms were out of town, Karamel had an unusual episode where she fell asleep briefly and jerked awake, then recovered almost immediately.
A trip to her regular veterinarian and Dr. Sarah Scruggs at Specialized Veterinary Services provided a verdict: 10-pound Karamel needed a pacemaker.
"I didn't know there was such a thing as a doggie cardiologist," said Ann Ransom, Karamel's owner.
A lot of people don't, nor are they aware that dogs — and cats — can also wear pacemakers, Scruggs said.
The native of the Philippines and University of Florida graduate is one of about 230 veterinary cardiologists in the country, but one of the few in Southwest Florida.
Scruggs performed the procedure on Karamel in mid-December. Much like a human pacemaker — typically what is installed in animals — the device is required after heart block, heart disease or arrhythmia develops. In Karamel's case, it was heart block that caused her near-fatal episode.
"Heart block is a disease in dogs ... in which the electrical system of the heart stops working properly," said Scruggs.
Because there was no incision into her chest cavity, Karamel was on the operating table for about an hour and required only a one-night stay before returning home.
Her operation came with a bit of anxiety for her owners.
"We were apprehensive on all sorts of levels," Ransom said. "Thinking 'oh gosh, I have a little dog and she's going to be worth Fort Knox,' because you're not quite sure what the cost is going to be, and my biggest concern was that she's small."
Scruggs was experienced. She had installed several pacemakers before, including one in a dog weighing a little more than a pound.
On average, the surgery costs about $2,000 when the pacemaker is donated, as was the case with Karamel's pacemaker.
Scruggs said it's common for human-pacemaker companies to donate the devices to veterinary hospitals, and some pacemakers may come from a person who recently died. Those can't be reused in humans, but they are perfect for animals.
A few hundred dogs per year receive pacemakers. Devices like Karamel's were first used in dogs in the 1980s, though the first dog to ever receive a pacemaker was a 10-year-old basenji, or hunting dog, in 1968. That device had been removed from a human who died six months after its implementation.
Shelf-life is always a concern with pacemakers, as well. But for dogs, it may be less of a concern given their shorter lifespan.
There are about two weeks more before Karamel makes a complete recovery. Ransom said the most difficult thing has been keeping the little ball of energy from getting too excited.
"(She) feels so much better. Her heart is working better than it did before, so she's ready to be active," she said.
"They're very social animals, and they get excited about seeing the people and dogs they know," Ransom said.
Ransom is interested to see how security agents at the airport react when she tells them Karamel wears a pacemaker.
"She'll have to have a card stating she has a pacemaker ... as to how believable they'll find that, I don't know," she said with a laugh.
After all Karamel has been through, "for her to continue at a normal level is pretty amazing," she