Colorado State University’s Canine Open Heart Surgery Team Releases Armstrong’s Dog in Good Health

Colorado State University’s veterinary teaching hospital released yesterday a healthy dog to his owner, seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, after the dog underwent a successful heart valve replacement operation. The surgery, conducted by the university’s cardiac surgery team lead by Dr. Chris Orton, was completed in late August on the nine-month old yellow Labrador named Rex. Colorado State is the only veterinary hospital in North America to consistently and successfully complete life-saving, open-heart surgeries on canines.

Armstrong’s puppy was born with a defective heart valve that, left untreated, was causing physical limitations and putting him at risk for an early death from heart failure. Rex underwent pioneering surgery necessary to save his life at Colorado State’s James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital on Aug. 31.      

"This surgery offers Rex the possibility of a lifelong cure, as long as the prosthetic valve continues to function well and does not develop complications such as blood clots," Orton said. "Rex will have to be monitored carefully for the next several months, but he should be able to live a normal life. Right now, he sure doesn’t look like a dog that just had heart surgery. He is doing great."

Orton heads up the cardiac surgery team at the hospital, the only animal cardiac surgery program of its kind in the United States. To date, Orton and his team have performed more than 100 open-heart surgeries in the past 10 years.

Rex received an artificial heart valve made from bovine pericardial tissue, or from tissue from a cow. During an intense, five hour surgery, the new valve was placed in Rex’s heart while his blood was circulated through a heart-lung machine, then his heart was re-started. The surgical team took him off the heart-lung machine and monitored him in the surgical suite for the critical first two hours. Rex then was placed in the hospital’s intensive care unit, where he was closely monitored for the next 72 hours.

Orton said that Rex is through the most critical stages of the procedure. Rex will be released to his owners, Armstrong and singer Sheryl Crow. He will remain on blood thinners for the next three months and will undergo several checkups by a veterinary cardiologist.

Heart disease is a leading cause of death among dogs. Orton and his team at Colorado State began conducting open-heart surgeries in 1991, debunking conventional wisdom that the surgery fails in canines. Orton began replacing valves in dogs in 1997. The surgery is a major effort that requires a team of six to eight people, staff in the critical care unit and intensive monitoring of the dogs before, during and immediately after the surgery, which limits the team’s ability to conduct surgeries to only a few per month.