A lifetime dog lover, Ashleigh Higgins first met Cherry, a cocker spaniel mix, at a California shelter when she was in high school. She knew then it was fate and vowed to her mother that day to provide for Cherry for the rest of her life. She stayed true to her promise, seeking out expert care at VCA Animal Care Center of Sonoma County when Cherry was diagnosed with a heart issue at age 12. Now Cherry’s heart is as strong as her soul thanks to a pacemaker and the attentive care of veterinary cardiac specialist, Dr. Kristin MacDonald.

The Fateful Day Ashleigh Met Cherry

Ashleigh always had dogs in her life—huskies, German shepherds, Australian shepherds, beagles and a golden retriever. “I first met Cherry when I was a junior in high school accompanying a friend who was adopting a cat,” Ashleigh explains. “Naturally, I was drawn to the dogs at the shelter! When I first saw Cherry in the kennel, I sank to the floor and sat there watching her—she was so scared.”

Ashleigh learned that Cherry was found abandoned in a field and the staff believed she had been abused. She also had an eye gland condition called cherry eye—inspiring her name. Cherry also happens to be Ashleigh’s mother’s favorite dog breed.

“I broke into tears when my mom found me that day at the shelter,” says Ashleigh. “I said, ‘I can’t leave her here!’ I promised to take full responsibility for her because I had a job at the time. My mom said we could apply to adopt her but that we probably wouldn’t be accepted.”

After seeing how well Cherry and their golden retriever played together, the shelter staff cleared Ashleigh and her mom to adopt her. Ashleigh thought Cherry was an adorable name so she kept it, buying her cute red accessories.

“It was meant to be,” states Ashleigh. “Cherry is my soul dog. We have a unique bond and she’s my best friend who deserves all my attention. Cherry also bonded with my mom who was disabled and not working at the time.”

Ashleigh kept her promise, paying for food and medications for Cherry during her high-school and college years—coming home on weekends from Santa Cruz where she went to school.“In 2019, my mom had surgery to help with her lung issues but she didn’t make it,” says Ashleigh. “Her passing was not only very stressful and sad for me, but very stressful for Cherry as well. She’d been with my mom for 11 years.”

The Funny Wobble Was a Clue

After her mother passed away, Ashleigh assumed full-time care for Cherry. When Cherry was around 12 years old, Ashleigh knew something was very wrong with her beloved dog.

“We noticed when she was walking, she’d sometimes stop, pause and sway, but she had no other symptoms,” she explains. “These episodes happened so quickly that I couldn’t capture them on video. I mentioned it to my regular vet when I took Cherry in for a dental cleaning. My vet tested Cherry’s heart and called me sharing that she heard an arrhythmia, so she couldn’t proceed with the dental cleaning. That’s when I was referred to Dr. MacDonald at VCA.”

“I met Cherry and Ashleigh in June of 2021,” explains Dr. MacDonald. “Cherry’s regular vet was concerned that her heart was the reason for the episodes. She was 12-1/2 years old and falling over, often wobbly, but it was happening intermittently—so I wondered if it was a heart or neuro issue. While she had an irregular slow heartbeat, it wasn’t conclusive.”

Dr. MacDonald had Cherry wear a Holter monitor with electrodes, which is a small, wearable device that records the heart's rhythm in order to detect irregular heartbeats or arrhythmias. “We tested Cherry over a few different days,” says Dr. MacDonald. “I suspected it was heart rhythm as it progressed over time, resulting in her heart not beating for up to six seconds.”

Dr. MacDonald diagnosed Cherry with sick sinus syndrome, a common issue in cocker spaniels and schnauzers that causes fainting episodes in an otherwise thriving dog.

A Pacemaker Was the Cure

“Ultimately, the only treatment for Cherry was a pacemaker,” notes Dr. MacDonald. “Oral medications are not effective. However, it was a big decision to make. We look for a good outlook for the dog, so we also screened Cherry for cancer or other systemic problems before the surgery. We have to consider: Does this make sense for her? Without the pacemaker is she at risk for sudden death? In August of 2021, we deemed Cherry a good candidate: she was having events, she was tired and she could never be anesthetized without the surgery. ”

The surgery lasted two hours, using a skin incision for vascular access down her jugular to her right ventricle. Remarkably, Cherry was able to go home the next day.

“It’s an easy recovery,” Dr. MacDonald says. “Ashleigh had to keep her quiet and at rest for a month. Once scar tissue secured the pacemaker in place, Cherry could live a normal life.”

Dr. MacDonald says she sees about eight animals a year who need a pacemaker. “It costs about $5,000 for the pacemaker and surgery, but pacemaker donations help defer costs for pet owners. And the battery life on a pacemaker is 10 years, so it will help the dog for the remainder of its life.”

Life with a Cherry on Top

“After what happened to my mom, I was terrified of another surgery,” admits Ashleigh. “But Dr. MacDonald and her staff at VCA were incredible!”

For one month, Ashleigh worked at her accounting job from home while caring for Cherry. “Just two days after the surgery, Cherry had more energy and her events were gone,” shares Ashleigh. “It was incredible. Her scar healed very well. And Dr. MacDonald shared with my regular vet how to work around the pacemaker and lead for dental cleanings and other procedures.

Cherry’s recent checkup with Dr. MacDonald gave her the all-clear for an entire year. Now 14 years old, Cherry will need regular rechecks to assure the pacemaker’s function.

“I’m so appreciative of VCA and the care the staff put into the process,” reflects Ashleigh. “They truly care about what they do. And on the discharge paperwork, the staff put a heart sticker on the paper and wrote ‘best girl.’ That meant so much to me, and I’ve kept the paperwork because of that note. I can see how much Dr. MacDonald cares about Cherry at every visit. And I’m so grateful to be able to give Cherry her best life.”

Certain diseases and conditions require the care of a doctor who has had specialized, intensive training in veterinary cardiology in order to provide the very best outcome for your pet. If your dog needs heart care, trust the experts at VCA Animal Hospitals. Find your nearest VCA specialty hospital here.