By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS

yoda

At first glance, Yoda looks like a perfectly healthy 15-month-old sheep as he playfully butts his head against a visitor’s knee and dances at the sight of his daily treat – a cup of delicious, nutritious grain.

But look closer and you’ll notice the 18-inch-by-18-inch bald spot on his torso where his black-and-white wool was shaved for heart surgery. In December, Yoda made veterinary history by undergoing life-saving Patent Ductus Arteriosus ligation.

A condition observed in some humans soon after birth, PDA is a heart problem in which the ductus arteriosus blood vessel remains open, allowing blood to recirculate into the lungs. Surgical repair is often performed on children with PDA, as well as dogs and cats — but never before on a sheep.

Then again, Yoda isn’t just any sheep. He’s a star therapy animal at the Ranch Hand Rescue Counseling Center and Animal Sanctuary in South Argyle, Texas, where sheep, horses, llamas and goats bond with children who’ve been physically or sexually abused.

“Yoda’s so fun and spunky and full of joy … kids connect with him right away because he’s as playful as they are,” said Cathy Champ, clinical director of the center.

Yoda wasn’t his usual frisky self late last year when his handlers first noticed he had a cough. A vet diagnosed him with pneumonia, and further tests revealed he was suffering from PDA.

“He was on the verge of death … we didn’t think he’d survive,” said Bob Williams, founder of Ranch Hand Rescue.

Williams put Yoda’s life in the hands of the team at Oklahoma State University’s Center for Veterinary Health Services, who had treated other Ranch Hand therapy animals. The case turned out to be particularly challenging.

OSU veterinary cardiologist Ryan Baumwart tried to fix Yoda’s heart problem with a catheter inserted through the sheep’s leg, but the PDA proved to be much too large to plug, leaving heart surgery as the only option.

“I’m talking about a garden-hose type of blood vessel,” said OSU small animal surgeon Danielle Dugat.  “My job was to take him to surgery and open his chest cavity, identify the shunting vessel, put a suture around it and slowly tighten it in two different spots, just like tightening a shoelace, which was successful.”

Yodascar

Yoda’s scar from his heart surgery

“The surgery is probably not that much different from human surgery,” said Dr. Dugat. “A lot of what we do in animal surgery translates back and forth from human surgery … We all take innovations and use them to learn.”

The medical line between species is becoming more and more blurry, according to experts like Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, a cardiologist at UCLA Medical Center who co-authored the best-selling book Zoobiquity: What Animals Can Teach Us About Health and the Science of Healing (Knopf, 2012). She also leads an annual Zoobiquity conference for doctors who treat the same diseases in patients of different species, and she directs the Zoobiquity Research Initiative, a collaboration between the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.

For Yoda, collaborating with humans is restricted for the time being. Petting is OK, but hugging is off limits until he’s fully recovered from the surgical procedures which cost about $5,000.

“A lot of people said ‘Are you nuts? Why are you spending all this money on a sheep?’” said Williams. “But they don’t understand the power and magic Yoda has for people that have been abused. He’s a magnet for people … We’ve had messages and calls and Facebook posts from all over the world. He definitely loves children, and they definitely love him.”

Dr. Dugat said the impact of Yoda’s history-making surgery goes way beyond extending the life of one small sheep.

“If you look at the big picture, pets and animals have a great impact on humans, so everyone has a better quality of life,” she said. “It makes a procedure like this all the more exciting.”