Hope for Dogs With Mitral Valve Disease

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Story at-a-glance -

  • Veterinary medicine currently has little to offer dogs diagnosed with mitral valve disease, a condition that allows blood to flow backward as the heart pumps
  • A veterinary surgeon in Japan has developed a repair procedure that is over 90 percent effective and is training surgeons in other countries; unfortunately, the surgery is very costly and is not currently performed in the U.S.
  • Nate Estes flew his 5-year-old dog, Zoey, all the way to France for the procedure; afterward, he founded the Mighty Hearts Project to help other owners of dogs with the disease navigate the way forward

Today a very special guest, Nate Estes, joins me. Nate founded an organization called the Mighty Hearts Project for pet parents whose dogs have been diagnosed with mitral valve disease.

Many people with dogs with this type of heart problem have been told there’s nothing they can do to help their pet. However, as one of them, Nate did a lot of research and located the one person in the entire world at the time that performed mitral valve repair surgery on dogs with a very high success rate (over 90 percent). He then formed the Mighty Hearts Project to provide a free resource for families of dogs suffering with this devastating condition.

Zoey Is the Inspiration for the Mighty Hearts Project

Nate’s dog, Zoey, was diagnosed with mitral valve disease at the age of 5, which is very young. At the time of her diagnosis, a board-certified veterinary cardiologist told Nate that within six months to a year, Zoey’s heart would fail and end her life.

The only thing traditional veterinary medicine had to offer Zoey was medication, which she would need to take until she died either of heart failure, or a side effect of the drugs. Nate just couldn’t believe or accept that his 5-year-old dog would be gone in a year, so he began doing extensive research.

Ultimately, he was able to get in touch with a man named Dylan Raskin whose dog, Esme, had undergone surgery for mitral valve disease. Dylan helped Nate get in touch with the team who performed the surgery. The veterinary cardiologist who developed the procedure was a professor in Japan and at the time was training veterinarians in France in his technique.

“Trying to piece it together was a nightmare logistically,” says Nate. “But within three months, we figured it all out and wired money to people we’d never even met, and off we went to France to save Zoey’s life.”

Mighty Hearts Is an Information Resource for Pet Parents

Zoey’s surgery was in 2016. Today, her surgeon, Dr. Masami Uechi, is in the process of setting up an exchange program in the U.S. to show veterinarians the procedure, which is fortunate, because most people can’t even consider flying their dog to France or Japan.

Not only is the cost prohibitive, but many dogs with mitral valve disease can’t comfortably fly on a plane. Another hurdle pet parents can face with this disorder is that not every dog is a candidate for the surgery, for example, older dogs and dogs with medical issues in addition to mitral valve disease.

The cost of the preliminary tests, the specialized surgery itself (which runs about $17,000 U.S. dollars in Japan), and the international travel to and from the locations where the procedure is performed is the reason behind the Mighty Hearts Project.

It’s an organization that provides a free resource to dog owners to help them figure out all the logistics, such as where they will stay with their dog when they arrive, how to deal with the airlines, the paperwork, the quarantine process and more. Everyone at Mighty Hearts has a dog who has undergone the surgery, so they have first-hand experience and understand what the owners of these dogs are going through.

“The goal is to help them get to and through the surgery and come out on the other side to enjoy the gift of time with their dogs,” explains Nate.

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Zoey May Need to Undergo a Second Surgery

Sadly, even though Zoey had the repair surgery at age 5, at age 7 she’s now experiencing signs of prolapse, which causes a buildup of fluid in the lungs. The left side of her heart is enlarging, and heart failure is once again a threat. Nate and the veterinary team in Japan are deciding whether he should take Zoey there in February for a second procedure.

Zoey’s situation is unusual but not uncommon with this disease, which is something the people at the Mighty Hearts Project are very upfront about. They encourage each dog parent to make a very informed decision about whether or not to attempt the procedure, because aside from the cost and stress involved, it’s not a cure.

The intent is to restore dogs to the first stage of the disease so they can live out the rest of their lives symptom-free. Some dogs do extremely well for many years after the repair — even dogs in the final stages of the disease who arrive on oxygen with weeks left to live. How well a dog does post-surgery depends on many factors, such as whether they have other things wrong with their heart, age at diagnosis, and the severity and progression of the heart disease. Every dog is truly different.

How to Learn More About the Mighty Hearts Project

Right now, the mitral valve repair procedure is being done in Japan, France, London and by one doctor in Austria. It will hopefully be available here in the U.S. before long. It’s still an emerging procedure, but Nate feels the dog parents of Mighty Hearts Project are a testimonial that this procedure works.

If you’d like to learn more about the organization and the surgery, you can visit the website at Mighty Hearts Project. You can also find them on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. Again, Nate encourages pet parents with a dog suffering from this condition to do their research. For example, learn about heart health supplements.

“And don’t ever give up,” says Nate. “Lean on people who’ve been through this who can walk with you on your journey. You’re not alone in this. Keep fighting and don’t give up. We’re here to help in any way you need us. We’re all family in this. We also want to support veterinary education to advance these techniques, because the surgical procedure is a beautiful gift of time that I’ve seen personally with hundreds of dogs that wouldn’t be here today without this intervention.”

The cost of the specialized repair procedure is prohibitive for many, if not most, pet parents, which may be why it still isn’t being offered here in the U.S., where it could run as much as $40,000 initially. But Nate feels passionately that pet parents should at least be aware it exists, and given the opportunity to decide for themselves.

Our job is not to judge others for the decisions they make. Our job is to provide them with options. “Just come to us to learn,” encourages Nate. “If you want to do it, we’ll help you. If you don’t want to do it, we’ll help you in any way we can.” I plan to stay in contact with Nate and share updates with all of you. If we can get the mitral valve repair procedure underway here in the U.S., within a few years there should be more options available for pet parents of dogs with the condition.

The cost of the procedure should see a decline over time, pet health insurance companies could begin offering coverage, and certainly travel within the U.S., when necessary, won’t be nearly as complicated or costly as international travel.