I’ve dreamed of this geeky day ever since I was twelve…

I knew we were in for a long morning when I saw Elvis’s name on the schedule. A fearsome and mighty miniature pinscher who thought he was a Great White, Elvis held the reigning title of ‘most challenging dog to vaccinate’ I had ever seen. He had the unique ability to turn himself into a Tasmanian Devil on demand, a whirling, 360 degree  tornado of teeth, claws, and anal gland secretions. And today he was coming in for a cough- one of the first signs of heart disease in dogs.

The ECG is one of the most useful tools in medicine, a device that measures the electrical activity of the heart to help you determine whether or not it is in good health. While the ECG is technically a noninvasive procedure, it’s one of the less well tolerated procedures in awake dogs and cats because it requires holding still, chilly alcohol, and some rather uncomfortable alligator clips on the skin. Needless to say, as much as I dearly wanted an ECG on my friend Elvis, the procedure was as likely to kill him- or us- as his potential underlying cardiac condition. Which is why although it is regularly used on anesthetized pets, its usefulness on awake animals is often limited to those who will actually tolerate it; it is sometimes limited as well by the need to get the pet close to the machine itself, which doesn’t always work in the confines of an ICU.

When I was at AVMA last month, AliveCor Vet was in a booth promoting a new veterinary ECG that works with your iphone. I walked by the booth, not expecting much- maybe an app that sends the results to your phone or something, I thought, but I’ll check it out. And then, my mind was blown.

An ECG on the floor at the AVMA convention

The AliveCor actually turns your iphone into a portable ECG machine. It consists of a case that snaps on over an iphone, turning it into a single lead ECG that is placed on the side of the animal, or, in the case of those animals who don’t want to deal with that, you can hold one paw on each contact. And that, my friends, is awesome. While it’s not an exact replacement for a three lead machine, it’s a pretty fantastic way to get a quick assessment on animals like Elvis, whose alternative is no ECG at all. It’s portable, and can send results via email so a printed copy can be saved to a medical record.

Taking an ECG on a dog on an iphone with the AliveCor Vet at the World Vets Latin American Training Center in Granada, Nicaragua.

The next day, I flew to Granada, where AliveCor had sent two devices to Dr. King to use at the World Vets Latin American Training Center. Now here is another application- out there, there’s no ECG machine at all. Surgeries are performed without the benefit of an ECG, which can be really helpful when one is working with older, malnourished animals with no history of veterinary care. We were even able to take it into the field to use on horses. An horse getting ECG out in the middle of a field in Nicaragua. Who would have thunk it. ECG devices of any kind are not used in places like Granada, but the veterinarians there do have iphones, so thanks to AliveCor the pet population now has access to a very valuable too.

AliveCor was selling the units at AVMA and they were flying out of the booth faster than I could keep track. My colleagues were all as impressed as I was. The device is inexpensive- $199- and the app is free. Veterinary interpretation, of course, not included. But next time you bring your pet in for a wellness check, you very well may get a quick in-room ECG!

Anyone else watch Star Trek back in the day? Remember those little handheld tricorders, that magical device that could with the wave of a hand give you invaluable health information? I’M NERDING OUT HERE.




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  • So, I’m dying to know, did you get it? Did you use it on Elvis? Did everyone survive his visit? And, when will they get cool easy to use devices like that for us humans? 😉

    • Oh, Elvis ended up passing away years ago- but I thought of him as soon as I saw this. I think they are working on FDA approval for a human version. 🙂

  • Cathey

    You are nerding out, but in a GOOD way! Wonderful use of technology, especially when there’s a way to apply it to the less fortunate parts of the world.

  • Anonymous

    That is SO FREAKING COOL! My Kolchak is one of those dogs that turns into a hurricane whenever there are needles present and he usually clings terrified to my chest burying his face in my cleavage. Tools like this totally rock my world. I always worry (because that’s how I roll: laying awake nights worrying about things that may never come up) that he’ll get some terrible illness that will go undiagnosed since he can’t sit still and play nice long enough for a good exam. It’s only the vet! He’s a darling everywhere else?

  • Wow! What next?Portable defibrillators?