Tasmanian Devil at the San Diego Zoo Gets a Pacemaker

Implantation Procedure Is Only the Second Ever for a Tasmanian Devil

A Tasmanian devil named Nick was released back into his exhibit at the Conrad Prebys Australian Outback this morning, having spent the last two weeks in an off-exhibit bedroom area. There, he had been closely monitored by zoo veterinarians and his keepers after undergoing surgery to implant a pacemaker—the second procedure of its type ever performed on a Tasmanian devil.

In January of this year, during a routine health examination, zoo veterinarians discovered that Nick had an abnormal heart rhythm. An echocardiogram and electrocardiogram (ECG) confirmed the animal had heart disease (cardiac conduction disorder), which was causing his heart to beat very slowly.

Zoo veterinarians consulted with cardiologist Joao Orvalho, DVM —a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine, from the University of California, Davis—and determined the best way to improve the quality of Nick’s life was to surgically implant a pacemaker to regulate his heartbeat.

On Wednesday, May 11, Cora Singleton, DVM, San Diego Zoo associate veterinarian, and her staff worked collaboratively with veterinary surgeon Fred Pike, DVM, a Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Surgeons, and his staff from Veterinary Specialty Hospital in San Diego, to place a transdiaphragmatic pacemaker (an impulse-generating device in the abdomen, and electrode sutured to the heart) in Nick.

The procedure was successful, with no complications. Nick was released the same day, and returned home to the Zoo hospital to recuperate.

“We are optimistic that this procedure will give Nick an additional one to two years of a happy and healthy life,” said Dr. Cora Singleton. “He will have a recheck exam to evaluate his pacemaker in three to six months, then annually thereafter.”

Tasmanian devils are listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and are native to the island state of Tasmania, which is part of Australia. Tasmanian devils live in forest, woodland and agricultural areas. They are nocturnal hunters and use their keen senses of smell and hearing to find prey or carrion. They can give off a fierce snarl and a high-pitched scream, which can be heard at feeding time, to establish dominance.

Tasmanian devils face extinction in the wild due to devil facial tumor disease (DFTD), a rare, contagious cancer found only in devils. DFTD is transmitted from one animal to another through biting, a common behavior among devils when mating and feeding. The disease kills all infected devils within six to 12 months, and there is no known cure or vaccine. The four Tasmanian devils at the San Diego Zoo are free of this disease.

The San Diego Zoo is a proud partner of the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program, based in Tasmania. The program is collaborating with research institutes and zoos around the world to save the endangered Tasmanian devil. For more information on the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program, go to tassiedevil.com.au.