February is not only the month of hearts, flowers, and Valentine’s Day, it has also been designated American Heart Month. To celebrate, Westfield Veterinary Group is encouraging pet owners to care for their pet’s heart health by knowing the signs of heart disease and focusing on prevention.

Nearly 10% of dogs and cats suffer from heart disease. Like humans, animals experience different forms of heart disease, some of which are genetic or age-related, and some of which are the result of other health conditions. While many heart issues cannot be prevented, pets can still live healthy lives with early detection of disease, careful disease management, and a healthy lifestyle.

One of the most common forms of heart disease in dogs is Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM), a condition in which the ventricles (lower chambers) of the heart muscle become enlarged, and the muscle wall becomes thinner. The heart cannot effectively pump blood through the body, which results in fluid buildup in the lungs and eventually, congestive heart failure. While the cause of the disease is unknown, there appears to be an inherited genetic component, particularly among Boxers, Cocker Spaniels, Doberman Pinschers, and Great Danes. Cats are not commonly affected by DCM.

Diet Deficiency

In recent years, the FDA has announced an increase in cases of DCM in dog breeds not typically prone to this disease. Based on the data collected from board-certified veterinary nutritionists and cardiologists, the agency believes there is a potential association between certain foods and DCM. Most of the pet food diets associated with non-hereditary DCM have non-soy legumes (peas, lentils, chickpeas, or potatoes) high on their ingredient lists. The FDA and veterinary cardiologists are currently gathering more information, but in the meantime, our recommendation is to stay away from grain-free and boutique diets.

Whenever possible, purchase pet food labeled with a statement from the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) that the food is nutritionally balanced and complete. Although the AAFCO doesn’t have regulatory authority, it does monitor the sale and distribution of pet food and recommends nutrient profiles for dogs and cats. Please call us if you have any questions about your pet’s nutrition.

How Do Veterinarians Diagnose DCM?

In dogs, signs of DCM include:

  • Lethargy
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Panting
  • Coughing
  • Enlarged/distended abdomen
  • Exercise intolerance
  • Collapse

Some of the above symptoms can be subtle, which is why we recommend annual wellness visits for all our patients. If your veterinarian finds pulse deficits, a heart murmur, slow capillary refill time, or breathing sounds muffled or crackling sounds due to fluid in the lungs, they will recommend further diagnostic tests, including chest X-rays, EKG and/or Holter monitor, and echocardiogram.

How Is DCM Treated?

Treatment of DCM is multifaceted and consists of several different medications that work to stabilize any arrhythmias and strengthen heart function. A diuretic may also be prescribed to manage any excess fluid buildup and help your pet to eliminate it through urination. A vasodilator may be given to dilate the blood vessels and improve circulation.

Living with DCM

Depending on the underlying cause of disease, DCM is commonly progressive and while management is possible, there is no cure. Your veterinarian will discuss a prognosis at the time your pet is diagnosed, as well as a plan for your pet’s quality of life. Your pet will need regular veterinary exams to ensure their disease is well-managed and that they are comfortable. You’ll need to monitor your pet’s overall attitude and watch for any progression of symptoms such as labored breathing, fainting, coughing, lethargy, or a distended abdomen.

If you have any questions about your pet’s heart health, DCM, or grain-free diets, please schedule an appointment or give us a call.