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Dog keeps pace
Schatzi thriving after rare surgery
Jerry Wilson gets a kiss from pooch Schatzi, who received a pacemaker to correct a slow heart rate. Left, Schatzi, which means my little sweetheart in German, has been fine ever since, the Wilsons say. - photo by Autumn Vetter

On an afternoon walk, Schatzi fell down, unconscious at the end of her leash.

After a few seconds of panic on the part of her owners, the 7-pound schnauzer stood up and continued forward without a blip of confusion.

“She’d just pop right back up, like where’s the party at,” owner Jerry Wilson said.

But then these instances became all too common for the Wilsons.

Instead of once or twice a day, Schatzi would collapse six or eight times.

That’s when Wilson and his wife, Marilyn, decided to take their 12-year-old dog to the veterinarian.

Shortly after that visit nearly a year ago, Schatzi headed into surgery at the University of Georgia to install a pacemaker.

Today, Wilson said his 13-year-old schnauzer is nipping at his heels like she’s a puppy again, thanks to a little device that’s regulating her heartbeat.

During that vet visit last summer, Bill Avra with Forsyth County Animal Hospital noticed that Schatzi had a slow heart rate.

Marilyn Wilson said Schatzi’s heart was beating just 58 beats per minute, when the norm is about 110.

She was diagnosed with sick sinus syndrome, which is common in the breed.

Avra explained that the heart’s natural pacemaker stops working, so when the dog is active, the heart rate doesn’t match the increased flow needed.

“In the worst case, like Schatzi, they begin to pass out. They get up and run around and fall over because they’re not getting enough circulation,” Avra said. “What the pacemaker does is send an electrical impulse that overrides the body’s failing impulses and basically sets it at an absolute rate.”

As a general practitioner, Avra sent the Wilsons to a specialist who determined that Schatzi’s best option was to install a pacemaker.

Jerry Wilson’s first reaction was shock.

“It just surprised me that they did it,” he said. “I had to think about it a little bit, but I’m fairly open minded. It’s only money. You can’t take it with you.”

He said since the couple doesn’t have any kids, Schatzi is somewhat like a child.

Added Marilyn Wilson: “Well, if we had kids, I’d still consider it.”

“It’s something we couldn’t not do for her,” she said. “It was either this, or she was fainting left and right. She could break her neck. She could fall off the sofa.”

Her friends and co-workers found the idea of a pacemaker for the dog strange and suggested it would be less expensive to buy another dog.

“It’s not Schatzi,” she said.

Marilyn Wilson first did some research online and found that the pacemakers for animals were designed for humans, but have passed their shelf life.

However, the devices still have about five to seven years of battery, and so are given at a small cost for animals, she said.

Avra was unsure of the operation cost because he doesn’t perform the surgery, but said it’s probably between $2,500 and $3,000.

While the cost isn’t something everyone can afford, Avra said it’s possible for many pet owners. He gave the example of people who spend thousands during the holidays for electronics that may be obsolete in a few years.

“Your dog is something that actually loves you back and has feeling and cares for you,” he said. “I’m incredulous at some of the things people do spend their money on. I can’t imagine anything more natural than spending you money on your family pet.”

Schatzi is one of hundreds of dogs who receive pacemakers each year in a procedure that has been done for decades.

She’s Avra’s only patient who has one, though.

“Not everybody will do that, but I appreciate [Jerry Wilson] as a client,” he said. “It was obvious that he was willing to do the best for Schatzi and trust our judgment about what needed to be done.”

Avra said he’s talked to many who say they’d never get an expensive surgery for their dog, but the perspective can be different when it’s their own beloved pet.

As Jerry Wilson played fetch with Schatzi and picked her up to receive a kiss on his nose, it was clear he had no regrets with his decision.