Annie the orphaned kitten gets life-saving heart surgery

Nine-month-old orphan Annie was destined for a hard-knock life when she was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect. But the shelter kitten was given a second chance when veterinarians from Colorado State University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital performed corrective surgery.

The kitten was born with a heart condition called patent ductus arteriosus (PDA), which occurs when one of the fetal heart vessels doesn’t close at birth, causing extra strain on the heart.

Annie was referred for treatment by the senior veterinarian at the Albuquerque Animal Welfare in New Mexico, Dr. Nicole Vigil, an alumna of CSU’s Doctor of Veterinary Medicine program. Abandoned at five weeks, Annie was quickly diagnosed with a heart murmur during her first big checkup.

Annie with Catriona MacPhail, chief small-animal medical officer at the CSU veterinary hospital.

“I was acquainted with CSU’s program that helps shelter animals because the hospital helped us work on another patient,” said Vigil. “When we discovered Annie had the same condition, the first thing in my brain was to contact CSU.”

For Annie to receive treatment, the shelter needed to find funding for the surgery – and quickly. Kittens with PDA can progress to heart failure without the operation, sometimes within a year. Because she is a shelter animal, Annie was eligible for surgery through CSU’s Saving Animals through Shelters and Teaching (SAST) program.

Practicing the procedure

In addition to subsidizing life-saving treatment for shelter animals, SAST gives students, interns and residents at the hospital the chance to perform and observe unusual procedures. Dr. Joey Sapora, first-year resident, performed Annie’s surgery, his first PDA ligation procedure. Fourth-year vet student Josh Link also got to scrub into the surgery, getting a firsthand look at how the complex procedure was done.

“There’s only so much you can learn from textbooks and diagrams, and the opportunity to see the dissection down to the level of the heart was really quite incredible,” Link said.

Annie’s participation as a SAST case was made possible with help from Dr. Catriona MacPhail, the hospital’s chief small-animal medical officer and co-founder of SAST. MacPhail aims to make PDA surgery available to shelter kittens and puppies that typically wouldn’t receive it due to cost, while providing a learning opportunity to residents for a procedure with an overwhelmingly positive prognosis.

“These cases are a win for training my residents in this particular procedure and for saving these kittens and puppies,” said MacPhail. “It’s one of the really feel-good situations for this program.”

Annie’s case is no exception. After surgery, her heart is functioning well, and she is expected to live a life free of the defect with which she was born. She remains in the care of her foster family in Albuquerque during a two-week recovery period and will soon return to Animal Welfare to find her forever home via adoption.