Veterinary cardiologist Dr. Nicole LeBlanc and her patient.
Veterinary cardiologist Dr. Nicole LeBlanc and her patient.

What would you name a cute, little, white ferret? Snowball? Fluffy? How about Satan?

Satan’s owners chose his name because, when they rescued him and took him home, he was so happy he ran around in circles like he was possessed.

Crystal and Stephanie Belikoff adopted Satan after he was removed from the home of an animal hoarder. “We knew nothing about ferrets,” says Stephanie Belikoff, “but we made a spur-of-the-moment decision to increase our household by one, and add a new species to the list.”

The little ferret settled into four years of a happy new life, until one day Belikoff found him collapsed and unresponsive in his romping room. She raced him to the nearest exotic animal veterinarian, who ran tests and discovered a rhythm problem with Satan’s heart. His diagnosis was complete atrioventricular block, a condition in which the electrical signals within the heart are blocked and prevent normal contraction. The veterinarian offered medication to help ease the pain, but the prognosis for the little ferret’s future was not good.

After doing some internet research, Belikoff discovered that humans with a complete atrioventricular block are often cured with the implantation of a pacemaker. “So I asked the crazy question: Can we do this with my little guy?” Her veterinarian referred her to the cardiology unit at the OSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital (VTH).

The cardiology team at OSU, led by Dr. Nicole LeBlanc, included resident doctors, interns, veterinary technicians who focus on cardiology, and fourth-year students from the College of Veterinary Medicine. After testing and evaluating Satan, the team confirmed the diagnosis of a third-degree block, but they also discovered problems with Satan’s heart valves, which added some risk. In consultation with the Belikoffs, the team decided that a pacemaker was a viable option for improving his symptoms, and possibly extending his life.

The soft-tissue surgery team at OSU has extensive experience placing pacemakers in dogs and cats, but this was their first ferret. Where do you get a pacemaker for a ferret? Dr. Milan Milovancev has done many different kinds of surgeries on ferrets, and felt confident that the pacemaker they routinely use for cats would also be good for Satan.

Xray shows the pacemaker implanted in Satan.
Xray shows the pacemaker implanted in Satan.

“The surgery went very smoothly,” says Milovancev, “largely because the same principles I use to insert pacemakers in other animals also applied to this ferret; and I was familiar with the surgical aspects that were ferret-specific.” Milovancev was also able to rely on the expertise of the OSU veterinary anesthesia service which is adept at safely monitoring all kinds of species undergoing surgery. “It allows me to focus on the surgery and know the patient is safe,” he says.

As soon as the pacemaker was implanted, Satan’s heart started beating normally, and his blood pressure stabilized. He spent several days recovering in the hospital ICU, while the cardiology team fine-tuned his pacemaker via remote control. At the end of the week, Satan was able to go home.

Satan will have to take medication for his enlarged heart, and periodically return to the hospital for a tune-up. “Every six months, we check the battery with a pacemaker programmer that wirelessly reads data from the device through the skin,” says Dr. LeBlanc.

The Belikoffs report that Satan is doing well, and enjoys most of the usual ferret past times. “He is a surgical pioneer,” says Belikoff. “We went to OSU not only because they had previous experience with pacemakers, but also because Satan was able to be a hands-on learning tool. Hopefully, his ordeal will help shape a future veterinary cardiologist.”

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