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Medtronic Is Saving a Tasmanian Devil's Life

Nancy Crotti

June 6, 2016

4 Min Read
Medtronic Is Saving a Tasmanian Devil's Life

Veterinary surgeon implants Medtronic pacemaker into endangered zoo animal.

Nancy Crotti

Nick Tasmanian devil Medtronic pacemaker San Diego

Placing the pacemaker in Nick's belly was also a smart choice, since Tasmanian devils tend to bite one another. (Image courtesy of San Diego Zoo)

A Tasmanian devil at the San Diego Zoo can get back to his devilish ways, thanks to a Medtronic pacemaker.

Nick, a 6-year-old Tasmanian devil, received the second pacemaker every implanted into a member of his species, on May 11. He was returned to his enclosure last week.

Zoo veterinarians had noticed that Nick was moving slowly and had been collapsing. A check of his heart revealed that it was pumping inefficiently and skipping beats. Veterinary cardiologist Joao Orvalho determined that Nick had a complete atrioventricular block, which was stopping conduction through the atrioventricular node.

Nick's condition wasn't imminently dangerous, so rather than euthanize him, zoo officials decided to give him a fighting chance to enjoy his golden years.

This isn't the only time a Medtronic device has been put to interesting uses in the animal kingdom. University of Minnesota researchers have been implanting Medtronic Reveal LINQ cardiac monitors in black bearsup north in the state to better study their hibernation.

Placing a pacemaker into a Tasmanian devil wasn't as simple as the procedure for a dog or cat, according to Orvalho, of the University of California Veterinary Medical Center in San Diego. Tasmanian devils have short, thick necks filled with muscle and fat. The veterinarians couldn't find Nick's jugular vein, through which a surgeon would normally thread the pacemaker's lead. Even if they had found the jugular, the animal's neck had no loose skin with room to place a pacemaker's generator and microchip.

Nick's heart was also different from that of a dog or cat, in terms of its structure and the fat around it. Fred Pike, a surgeon from the Veterinary Specialty Hospital in San Diego, placed the 1-½-inch long device into Nick's abdominal cavity and sewed the electrode onto the exterior wall of the heart rather than inside it, with Orvalho standing by.

"You can't stop the heart to place it, so you have to suture the heart while you place it," Pike said. "And the size of the patient makes it a little challenging."

Placing the device in Nick's belly was also a prudent choice, given Tasmanian devils' proclivity to bite one another and hang out in dens with roots poking through the walls, Orvalho added.

Medtronic had donated the pacemaker and lead to the nonprofit CanPacers, which sells them to veterinary cardiologists at a deep discount for use in companion animals. St. Jude Medical, Guidant Corp., and other medtech companies also donate unused pacemakers to the repository at the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine at North Carolina State University. 

No one from the Medtronic was immediately available for comment.

A dog will usually live two years after getting a pacemaker, said Orvalho, who has done hundreds of canine pacemaker placements. Although Tasmanian devils usually live to only 5 years of age in the wild, they've been known to live to age 7 or older in captivity, according to Dr. Benjamin Nevitt, an associate veterinarian at the zoo.

Tasmanian devils are listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature  and are native to the island state of Tasmania, which is part of Australia. They face extinction in the wild due to devil facial tumor disease, a rare, contagious cancer transmitted from one animal to another through biting, a common behavior among devils when mating and feeding.

The disease kills all infected devils within six to 12 months, and there is no known cure or vaccine. The four Tasmanian devils at the San Diego Zoo are free of this disease.

Nick's surgery took about an hour, and he was released back to the zoo the same day. The little devil's prognosis is good.

"Surgery site's all healed up he seems like he has a good energy level, good appetite," Nevitt said. "The keepers are very happy with where he's at."

Nancy Crotti is a contributor to Qmed.

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About the Author(s)

Nancy Crotti

Nancy Crotti is a frequent contributor to MD+DI. Reach her at [email protected].

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