UT-VMC emergency room tails:Oscar’s Heart

UTVMC ER TAILSBy Dr. Amanda Rainey

A very common emergency situation for us to encounter and treat in both cats and dogs is heart failure.  Certain breeds are more prone to developing this, but any can be susceptible although the inciting cause may be different.  During one of my recent weekend shifts I was to discover that other species can also experience this malady, and this is how I came to know a little hedgehog named Oscar.

“Emergency student call 5655.” The page rang out over the intercom and one of our students immediately responded.  She quickly returned, with a concerned look on her face and asked me to come with her.  Apparently a hedgehog had just arrived, and was having difficulty breathing.  She had smartly placed him in the oxygen cage located in our exotics small mammal ward before seeking my attention, and I sprinted to the location.  Oscar was recumbent in the cage, his spiky sides heaving as his tiny pointed nose rapidly moved back and forth due to his struggle to breathe.  

Examining these minute creatures can be difficult, as their natural response is to curl up into a spiny ball, which doesn’t allow for palpation or auscultation.  He was too sick for this behavior at the moment, so I took a quick listen with my stethoscope.  I detected distinctive crackles over where I believed his lungs resided, signifying the presence of pulmonary edema, a hallmark physical exam finding related to heart failure.

“I think he might be in heart failure!”  I stated, a bit of surprise in my voice as I communicated with my student.  In our domestic pets the next step would be to administer a diuretic, in order to begin pulling fluid from the lungs.  Not sure this was safe to use in such an atypical species, I phoned the exotics clinician on call to get a better grasp of the situation.  As it turns out, a diuretic was definitely indicated and we injected a minuscule dose to our slight and prickly patient.  Giving that time to work and leaving him in the oxygen cage to minimize his stress, I went to speak with Oscar’s owners.  

He had been rescued from a less than ideal home situation and his new owners were very committed to his care.  They were prepared to admit him to the hospital and even wished for further diagnostics, which found us with our cardiologist performing an echocardiogram on Oscar a few hours later, once his condition had somewhat stabilized.  As it turns out, Oscar had developed a heart condition known as dilated cardiomyopathy, something I had seen many times in large breed canines, but never imagined could develop in a hedgehog!  I was amazed at what I was learning as I watched his tiny heart contract on the black and white ultrasound screen.  

The recommended treatment involved some oral medications to address the fluid overload in his lungs and a several day stay in the hospital as his respiratory rate gradually returned to normal.  His prognosis was a bit unknown, as there is not a great deal of information on heart disease in such creatures.  Due to the severity of the changes in his heart, our cardiologist felt he could have several months symptom free with treatment, although she couldn’t be certain.  Oscar’s owners were pleased to have him returned to them for whatever time he had left, and shared many anecdotes of his antics at home.  As far as we know, Oscar continues to do well and I’ll never forget such an educational case!

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