Pets

Health tourism: How far would you go to save your dog’s life?

Chuck was diagnosed with a loud heart murmur when he was 6 years old, but the black-and-tan cavalier’s heart wasn’t enlarged, and he didn’t need any medication to control the condition. That changed last fall, when the then-10-year-old dog started coughing.

Chuck was a victim of mitral valve disease, also known as chronic valvular disease. It’s the most common form of heart disease in older dogs. Small breeds such as dachshunds, poodles and Chihuahuas are primarily at risk, but Chuck is a cavalier King Charles spaniel, a breed that typically develops the disease earlier in life than other small dogs.

His veterinary cardiologist found that Chuck’s heart was enlarging quickly and prescribed medication, but it didn’t help. By December, Chuck’s cough was worse, and his lungs had started to fill with fluid, a sign of congestive heart failure. Additional medications were prescribed, but Chuck’s owners were given the devastating news that their dog likely had only months to live.

“I went home, cried for a couple of days and then started Googling,” says Holly Johnson-Modafferi of Boston.

She learned of a veterinary surgeon in Japan who had performed a successful repair of the mitral valve. Chuck’s cardiologist was familiar with the surgery, but warned that the seven-month waiting period to bring a dog into Japan would probably preclude Chuck from getting there in time. Holly went back to Google and discovered that the Japanese veterinarian, Masami Uechi, also performed the surgery in France every other month, in partnership with two French veterinarians, Jean-Hugues Bozon, DVM, and Sabine Bozon, DVM.

“Once I started finding out the details, I talked to Mike (Modafferi, her husband), and we decided we were going to make it happen,” she says.

Along with three other couples who followed similar paths of discovery, Holly and Mike flew to France with Chuck last month. (Full disclosure: My husband and I, with our cavalier Harper, were one of those couples.)

The complex surgery involves stopping the dog’s heart, with life support provided by a heart-lung bypass machine. The mitral valve is reshaped, and stretched or broken chordae tendineae (known as the heart strings) are replaced with expanded PTFE, a lightweight but powerful material.

The surgery, which has been performed nearly 700 times over a dozen years, has a success rate of 90 percent.

The four dogs who underwent surgery last month are back home after a week of hospitalization. They face a three-month recovery period that requires owners to keep them from running and jumping while they heal.

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