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A Ferret With A Pacemaker

When a ferret develops heart conditions that threaten his life, a pacemaker brings a solution that brings joy back to the lives of him and his family.

Rebecca Stout
Posted: May 25, 2015, 10:40 p.m. EDT

white ferret on chair
© Courtesy of Crystal and Stephanie Belikoff 
Before the pacemaker surgery, the condition of his heart stopped Satan from enjoying life as he had.

All heart and joy — that is how I would describe a ferret. So when a serious injury or illness comes along, it is heartbreaking for owners to see the very things that embody the ferret be stolen away. Crystal Belikoff of Washington had to watch her beloved pet’s life slowly getting sucked out of him, both physically and emotionally. Despite the fatal illness cruelly pulling him closer and closer to death’s door, he still had a strong will to live. His spirit was untouched. So Belikoff decided to fight for her little fighter.

Satan, so named because of the almost-possessed behavior (due to happiness) he exhibited on the day he joined Belikoff’s family, was a fighter long before his deadly illness befell him. He came into Belikoff’s life at 6 months of age in 2009. A friend of the family originally found the ferret wandering a parking deck hungry and in great danger. He unknowingly turned him over to an animal hoarder. Later, animal control was called to the hoarder’s home and the exotics were slated for euthanization. Upon finding out about the ferret’s fate, the man who had originally found him sent out a desperate call to Belikoff. 

When Belikoff and her wife, Stephanie, heard about the little ferret facing certain death, she knew she couldn’t say no. 

"We knew nothing about ferrets but made the spur of the moment decision to increase our household by one and add a new species to the list,” she said.

With the love that comes from a forever home, Satan grew into a healthy, robust, weasel war dancing fuzzbutt. 

Trouble In Ferret Paradise
Suddenly in June 2013, the dancing lessened and then came to a halt. Crystal and Stephanie found Satan collapsed and unresponsive on the floor of his romp room. The two scooped up the ferret and raced to the nearest exotic emergency clinic. The drive seemed excruciatingly far because the clinic was an hour’s drive, however Belikoff says they made it in record time. Upon arrival they were met with questions as to what brought little Satan to the state he was in. 

"A battery of tests were done, overnight observation, IV fluids, you name it,” Belikoff said. "It wasn’t until about a week in that we knew definitively it was his heart. As soon as we knew we were presented our options. Medication to help ease his pain, medication to reduce the symptoms but cure nothing, or ending his pain forever.” 

During Belikoff's frantic researching on the Internet for an answer, she read that people with a similar heart condition are cured with the implantation of a pacemaker. 

"So I asked the crazy question: Can we do this with my little guy,” she said.

The journey began with finding a pacemaker that was small enough for a ferret. It was decided that an infant’s would be the best fit. Although their veterinarian was willing to attempt the surgery, he was not experienced enough. So the next step was to find a veterinary cardiologist. 

It was back to searching the Internet for Belikoff, and again she found her answer. Enter Dr. Milan Milovancev, a board-certified veterinary surgeon (DACVS-SA) from the Lois Bates Acheson Veterinary Teaching Hospital at Oregon State University. He was a willing and enthusiastic doctor.

ferret after surgery
© Courtesy of Crystal and Stephanie Belikoff 
The pacemaker surgery went smoothly and Satan's recovery time was amazingly brief.

The Bumpy Road To A Solution
To say that it was challenging to get the little one who was in such a fragile state of health to the hospital for the procedure is an understatement. The drive was nerve-wracking.

"Every hour or so we’d have to pull over and see how he was doing,” she said. "Pain meds, heart meds, a little food, a sip of water, an attempt to make waste, the list goes on.” 

They finally made it, but only to find out the nightmare was not yet over for them. They were given the bad news that the pacemaker hadn’t arrived on time. Belikoff and her wife were forced to leave him at the clinic for two long excruciating days before the surgery could be done.

"We spent those two days all over the map,” Belikoff said. "I had planned a family gathering for July 4th months in advance for my family and rushed back to Washington to set up, see the first of my family arrive, and wave goodbye before setting off for OSU again.” 

Once back at OSU, the couple spent the night in the parking lot so they were sure to be there when the surgery was underway.

"That night when we got the call that he was OK and the pacemaker was installed with no complications,” she said, "we momentarily forgot that it was Independence Day and accepted the fireworks as a larger celebration of the small miracle we were a part of.”

What kind of condition brought this little one so close to certain death and led to such a rare, if not the first, procedure on a ferret to rectify it? Dr. Milovancev explained.

"In fact, his heart had the abnormal rhythm — called a third degree block; which means the electrical signals within the heart are being blocked and preventing the heart from contracting normally,” Milovancev said. "But he also had additional heart conditions, including problems with his valves and thickening of his heart muscle. Collectively, the cardiology team felt that by helping the rhythm problem with a pacemaker, we could help his heart enough to improve his quality of life and alleviate the symptoms he was having — trouble breathing, exercise intolerance, etc.”

The surgery went incredibly well. 

"As soon as the pacemaker was implanted his heart started beating much more normally and his blood pressure normalized, so we were happy,” Milovancev said. "He spent a few days recovering in the hospital, our OSU veterinary cardiology team fine-tuned some of the settings on his pacemaker — done wirelessly; kind of cool.) He was discharged to his owners later in the week.” 

From there the white ball of fur began his recovery in the comforts of his own home.

Milovancev is quick to point out that a major reason why Satan’s story was such a success is due to the fact that the Veterinary Teaching Hospital at OSU uses a multi-disciplinary approach for their patients. Specialists — such as surgeons, cardiologists, oncologist, internists, radiologists, anesthesiologists, etc. — all come together as a team as needed by the individual with the common goal to improve their quality of life.

X-ray of ferret with pacemaker
© Courtesy of Crystal and Stephanie Belikoff 
A pacemaker made for infants turned out to be the right size for a ferret.

A Quick Recovery
Belikoff reports that recovery was surprisingly quick. Once Satan had healed, it was like nothing had ever happened to him physically. 

"Mentally he’s a little slower and isn’t able to do most of the tricks he was proficient at before, but he’s still full of love!” she said.

Today, maintenance care is quite simple. He takes a daily medication, pimobendan, for his enlarged heart. His only disadvantage in life is that he no longer visits busy parks due to a compromised immune system. Other than that, it’s business as usual with getting tons of cuddles and doing otherwise ferrety things.

A Rare Ferret Procedure
When I tell people this extraordinary story about the little white ferret with black specks and his special owners who fought for him, I am met with much skepticism despite the fact that they won the battle. It isn’t surprising because nobody, even professionals, have ever heard of this surgery being attempted on a ferret before. 

It makes some ferret lovers cringe, because the whole procedure and recovery sound as if it would be so excruciatingly painful that it’d be worse than the condition itself. Why put a ferret through this they ask? I say to them, "If you felt yourself slipping away, fighting to breathe, feeling your heart stopping repeatedly not knowing whether it will restart, and you were given a chance to be and stay on this earth longer… would you want death?”

A vast number of people in this world face so much more horrid conditions and painful treatments. Yet even for those who are also faced with the fact that there is no cure for them, the thought of death as an option never enters their or their loved one’s minds. If you were to think from little Satan’s standpoint, would you want death when you have finally found peace and such great joy on this earth after working so hard to beat the odds so many times to escape the horrors in your life? To finally have felt love? For me to see a loved one go through and fight the brutal challenges Satan did so willfully and overcome them, it would be hard for me to give up on them. Why would I give up when they never gave up on life? 

After talking with the owners and the surgeon, I can most assuredly say to you that not only was this little ferret’s life saved, but also his quality of life was improved tenfold. He is a happy boy once again and back in his owners’ arms. Every goal was achieved. What more can you ask for?

Looking To The Future
It’s difficult to say who the champion is in this story. Was it the man who found little Satan in the parking lot and rescued him, Crystal and Stephanie for selflessly taking Satan in and then pouring their heart and soul into him, the surgeon who implanted the pacemaker and saved his life, or was it Satan himself who fought so hard to live?

One of the happiest parts of this story is that Satan is not the only one to have benefited from the efforts of his owners and veterinarian. It is quite probable that other ferrets may benefit from Satan’s experience in the future. 

"He’s a surgery pioneer!” Belikoff said. "We went to Oregon State University to have the surgery done not only because they had previous experience with pacemakers in other animals, but because he was able to be a hands-on learning tool. Hopefully his ordeal helped shape a future veterinarian cardiologist.” 

When asked exactly how ferrets might benefit from Satan’s unusual surgery, Milovancev says he is unsure of exactly how it will benefit ferrets. But he adds, "Maybe if your article gets around people will know it is a possibility, and therefore be aware of the fact that this problem can be treated in ferrets.” 

Who knows where things can go from there.

There is no doubt that Satan’s owners benefited from the surgery and from having Satan in their lives.
 
"He’s a gift every day,” Belikoff said. "He reminds me to slow down and enjoy life. The financial costs were extreme and every time someone reminds me of that I’m able to further appreciate that life is priceless.”

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Posted: May 25, 2015, 10:40 p.m. EDT


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A Ferret With A Pacemaker

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Reader Comments
Aww
Carolyn, Toronto, ON
Posted: 6/10/2015 12:28:53 PM
I was approached by someone two days ago to inform me that Dr Kemmerer Cottrel had performed this surgery. I was also told that that someone else had as well. She said she wasn't sure, but she thought Dr Quesenberry or an associate had done one. She was unsure of the success of either. I hadn't verified what I was told. So, Dr C, thanks for coming on here and doing so! I'm so excited to see that you commented!
Rebecca, hixson, TN
Posted: 5/29/2015 9:33:40 AM
Great story!
Elaine, Sheffield Village, OH
Posted: 5/29/2015 8:36:16 AM
I'm very happy to read he's doing well. I have to let you know, however, that I successfully performed this procedure here at West End Animal Hospital in 1994, along with Dr. Isis Sanchez, so it's not the first. :)
Deborah, Newberry, FL
Posted: 5/28/2015 10:48:44 AM
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