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Matthew Sisk: Medical emergency worries veterinarian
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It’s a whirlwind.

Lemmy’s owners call as they’re barreling down the highway on their way to our office. His mom is crying. Lemmy is dead.

That’s the report, and then the cell signal drops.

My gut tightens as they pull into the parking lot 10 minutes later. An assistant and I hurry to their car, and I lean in to check the motionless dog.

He’s barely breathing. His gums are white, not pale pink but white. His pulse is barely there, and I can’t hear a heartbeat.

The history of what exactly happened is frustrating. When the family went to bed last night, Lemmy was his usual self. When they got up this morning, he was like this.

I tell them he’s still alive, but something is drastically wrong. They wait in an exam room while we shoot radiographs of his chest.

Instead of a heart-shaped structure in the middle of his chest, there is a perfectly round orb. I hate seeing that, especially given his enlarged spleen only eight months earlier.

To clarify, a small sack called the pericardial sack surrounds the heart in dogs. It usually lays almost right on the heart muscle and can contain a scant amount of fluid between heart and sack. However, if it fills with fluid, it can only swell so much. Then it begins to compress the heart, limiting beating. Limited heartbeats limit life.

The source of the fluid can be almost anything: idiopathic (no known reason), infectious, trauma or cancer. One of the most common spleen tumors tends to spread to the heart and can cause this problem. I worry my radiology consult was mistaken when the results were benign and normal.

I use an ultrasound guide and place a needle into the sack. I drain more than 8 ounces of clear reddish fluid. The heart pumps freely again and Lemmy’s pulse returns to normal. Lemmy stands up and gingerly walks to his parents.

This is a short term fix. The fluid will likely return. I refer Lemmy to a specialty practice and await their findings on causation. But I’m worried.

Matthew Sisk is a practicing veterinarian from Habersham County. Have questions about your pet? He can be reached at

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