Thanks to a little dog with a big (though afflicted) heart, veterinary practitioners from around the region are learning how to take better care of dogs suffering from heart disease.

Sparkle Skelton, a 16- year old Peke-a-poo dog owned by local realtor John Skelton, began her association with the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine as a patient of veterinary cardiologist Dr. Lee Pyle, of Blacksburg.

For the last two years, Skelton has volunteered Sparkle for the continuing education programs in veterinary cardiology that Pyle provides for veterinary professionals.

"This little dog has become an indispensable part of our cardiology CE programs," said Pyle, a professor in the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences who is board-certified by the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine. "Because of the Skeltons' willingness to volunteer their dog for our classes, we are able to show veterinarians how to use modern ultrasound techniques to identify a serious disorder that commonly afflicts older dogs."

Sparkle suffers from mitral and tricuspid valve regurgitation, a degenerative valve disorder that interferes with the heart's ability to efficiently pump blood to and from its various chambers. Pyle is successfully managing the case with medical therapies and periodic evaluations.

By using Sparkle during teaching sessions, Pyle is able to show veterinarians who are trying to learn more about using ultrasound in cardiac diagnostics how to identify heart disease in animals. The procedure is harmless and non-invasive.

Sparkle has participated in about a half-dozen workshops so far, said Pyle, who whimsically demonstrated his appreciation to the Skeltons last year by presenting them with a plaque that formally recognized Sparkle as a Cardiology Teaching assistant and reads: "The Continuing Education Program is Forever Grateful to Sparkle Skelton for Her Contributions to the Education of Veterinarians."

"My wife Bonnie and I are just so very appreciative of the wonderful care that the vet school has provided for our family over the years," said Skelton, who also owned a Pekinese named Marbil that was a VMRCVM patient for 12 years before she passed away in October 2001. "They are all knowledgeable, warm-hearted, and care-giving people, from the doctors to the students to the technical and professional staff. We're just happy to be able to 'give back' a little bit through Sparkle's volunteer service."

It turns out that Sparkle comes from a long line of Virginia Tech supporters. Sparkle's "dad," John, a local real estate executive, is the son of William E. Skelton, the former dean of extension who retired in 1979 after a 39-year career.

Skelton, a recipient of the university's prestigious Ruffner Medal and a past president of the Virginia Tech Alumni Association, is being honored through the naming of the $44 million, 193,000-square-foot Inn at Virginia Tech and Skelton Conference Center that is taking shape on the Price's Fork Road side of Virginia Tech's campus.

The Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine (VMRCVM) is a two-state, three-campus professional school operated by the land-grant universities of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg and the University of Maryland at College Park. Its flagship facilities, based at Virginia Tech, include the Veterinary Teaching Hospital, which treats more than 40,000 animals annually. Other campuses include the Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center in Leesburg, Va., and the Avrum Gudelsky Veterinary Center at College Park, home of the Center for Government and Corporate Veterinary Medicine. The VMRCVM annually enrolls approximately 500 Doctor of Veterinary Medicine and graduate students, is a leading biomedical and clinical research center, and provides professional continuing education services for veterinarians practicing throughout the two states.

Founded in 1872 as a land-grant college, Virginia Tech has grown to become among the largest universities in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Today, Virginia Tech's eight colleges are dedicated to putting knowledge to work through teaching, research, and outreach activities and to fulfilling its vision to be among the top research universities in the nation. At its 2,600-acre main campus located in Blacksburg and other campus centers in Northern Virginia, Southwest Virginia, Hampton Roads, Richmond, and Roanoke, Virginia Tech enrolls more than 28,000 full- and part-time undergraduate and graduate students from all 50 states and more than 100 countries in 180 academic degree programs.

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