Care for the Loving Heart!

Like humans, dogs too suffer from heart diseases. The common cardiac problems are abnormality of heart beats appropriately known as Arrhythmia and other one is cardiomyopathy (a disease of cardiac muscles). Both conditions may lead to heart failure. Here’s more on heart diseases in dogs.

What is cardiomyopathy?

Cardiomyopathy (CM) is the most common cause of heart failure. It is of two types i.e. dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) and hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM). The former one is more common in dogs and later one in cats. DCM is a specific condition characterised by dilated heart chambers with a thin heart muscle and decreased contractility of the heart muscle resulting into decreased ability of the heart to pump blood throughout the body. Other one is hypertrophic cardiomyopathy wherein the walls of the chambers of the heart get thickened leading to a decrease in pumping efficiency.

Which breeds are susceptible?

Doberman Pinscher, Labrador Retriever, Deerhounds, Boxers, Irish Wolfhounds and Golden Retrievers are some of the breeds who suffer commonly from cardiomyopathy. Cocker Spaniels and other smaller breeds may also suffer from cardiomyopathy less commonly. Cardiomyopathy has also been observed in German Shepherd, Great Dane and Rottweiler. Signs of distress come suddenly and the disease is generally seen in dogs of 4-10 years of age. However, cardiomyopathy has also been seen in young ones with distemper. Incidence of cardiomyopathy is greater in Doberman Pincher, Great Dane and Rottweiler. While in Boxers, heart enlargement is minimum but arrhythmias are more serious.

How heart works?

The heart of all mammals is made up of four chambers. The upper left and right chambers are called the atria (atrium) and the lower left and right chambers are called the ventricles. Blood flows from the veins of the body into the right atrium. It is stored there briefly as it is pumped on into the right ventricle. The right ventricle pumps blood into the lungs, where it receives oxygen. It then flows from the lungs into the left atrium where it is held briefly before going on to the left ventricle. The left ventricle contains the largest muscle of the heart so it can pump blood out through the arteries to all parts of the body.

What happens when heart fails?

Cardiomyopathy leads to a decrease in pumping efficiency. Development of congestive heart failure is quite dog healthcommon in dilated cardiomyopathy. As the failing heart enlarges, the left side loses its ability to contract forcefully to pump blood through the blood vessels. When this occurs, blood begins to pool in the right side of the heart, which supplies blood to the lungs for oxygenation and receives spent blood from the thorax and abdomen. Sometimes the damage is more apparent on the right side of the heart first, sometimes on the left. But, eventually, both sides are affected because one relies on the other. The dog’s heart works hard to compensate for these changes but eventually pet can no longer perform the activities as he has been doing in the past. This stage of the disease is called congestive heart failure. In congestive heart failure, the heart is no longer able to provide blood with adequate oxygen to supply the body. Without adequate oxygen, the body’s cells become desperate and trigger a series of responses. Various hormones are released by several organs in an attempt to correct the problem. These hormones conserve and retain fluids in an effort to increase blood volume and the output of blood. For several months, these compensatory responses help the situation. However, increased fluid retention eventually becomes harmful. More and more fluid leaks out of the capillaries, causing increased gagging and coughing, and reduced stamina. Fluid in the lungs causes pulmonary edema, fluid below the skin leads to peripheral or limb edema, and fluid in the abdomen results into ascites. Peripheral or limb edema is much less common in dogs.

What are the causes of heart failure?

Although cause of cardiomyopathy in dogs is generally unknown, deficiency of myocardial carnitine concentration in some dogs with cardiomyopathy has been observed and supplementation of L-carnitine in these dogs has improved their clinical condition. Dogs may suffer from dilated cardiomyopathy as a sequel of parvo myocarditis or distemper myocarditis in unvaccinated dogs. Other causes of myopathy include ischaemia, hypoxia, atherosclerotic intramural coronary artery infarction, toxins, and drugs like doxorubicin, immune mediated diseases, ehrlichiosis, or babesiosis. Hypothyroidism (deficiency of thyroid hormone) has also been associated with the development of cardiomyopathy in dogs.

What are the signs of heart failure?

Early signs may include fainting, exercise intolerance, weight loss or lethargy. Many dogs remain asymptomatic, and may suddenly have symptoms associated with congestive heart failure. Signs associated with heart failure include respiratory distress (left heart failure), or abdominal distention –ascites (fluid build-up associated with right heart failure). The onset of symptoms may be extremely rapid. It is not uncommon for dogs to have a history of a few days illness. Dogs in the later stages of congestive heart failure become much less active and tire easily. Their appetite reduces and they show signs of difficult respiration, panting and coughing even while at rest. Their tummy enlarges and assumes pear-shape owing to fluid accumulates in the liver and abdomen. The colour of the membrane of the mouth may turn grayish rather than healthy pink and blood vessels on the surface are abnormally congested with blood. These dogs often show pulsation in the jugular vein. Murmurs and/or arrhythmia are heard on chest auscultation.

By the time cardiomyopathy and congestive heart failure is diagnosed, dogs rarely live beyond a year. The disease is known to run in families so families with this problem should not be bred. Doberman Pinchers develop abnormal electrocardiograms up to four years before they develop clinical signs of heart failure. Many of these dogs die suddenly without warning. Pet parents often think these dogs have been poisoned. Others develop the cough and fluid retention characteristic irregular heart beat. Dilated cardiomyopathy or congestive heart failure develops over many months or even years. As heart function declines, the body is able to compensate for several weeks or months. However, at some point, the body’s ability to compensate is no longer effective. At this point, dogs go into severe heart failure in what appears to be a matter of hours. Rapid, heavy breathing, blue tongue, excessive drooling, or collapse may be the first signs that anything is wrong.

How is cardiomyopathy diagnosed?

Heart failure is often suspected simply on physical examination. Heart sounds in this condition tend to be muffled and the raspy noise of air passing through fluid-filled lungs is often audible. To confirm suspicions, chest X-rays is advised to review the shape of the heart. Distinctive globular shape heart in X-rays is indicative of cardiomyopathy. The normal, chiseled cardiac silhouette is replaced by a much larger, rounded heart shadow. Early in the disease the left side of the heart may be more enlarged than the right but with time both the left and right sides of the heart enlarge. In Boxers, rhythm irregularities (arrhythmias) may be detected even before X-rays show abnormal findings. The lungs of dogs with heart failure show more radio-opacity due to fluid accumulation.

Electrocardiogram (EKG) is another diagnostic tool to detect early heart abnormalities before X-ray diagnosis. A fast, out-of-control fibrillation of the atrium is present in most of the dogs of giant breed with cardiomyopathy. In other cases left ventricle enlargement is denoted by broad QRS complex and increased R wave voltage. While, some cases have faster rate with premature contractions of the ventricles. Visualisation of the heart with an echocardiography also gives a good indication of the efficiency of the heart in pumping blood. It measures accurately the size of heart chambers as well as an indication of the degree of heart enlargement.

Blood serum chemistry and urine chemistry tests are of not much utility except assisting to visualise the status of kidney and liver. Recently cardiac troponins are being used to detect cardiomyopathy in dogs.

What is the future of dogs with cardiomyopathy?

Unfortunately, pets with cardiomyopathy do not live long. Medication can prolong the lives of the pets for a while and can improve the quality of the life. Big breeds with the severe form may only live a few weeks from the time the problem is noticed. A few dogs have survived for about 18-20 months with continuous therapy and monitoring under specialist care. Treatment of cardiac problems should only be undertaken under the advice of a veterinary medical specialist.

(At Nandini Veterinary Hospital, Surat, Prof Dr JP Varshney, MVSc, PhD (Medicine), Retired Professor, is currently engaged as Senior Consultant (Medicine); Dr PS Chaudhary, MVSc (Surgery) is working as a Senior Surgeon; Dr VV Deshmukh, MVSc (Pathology) is working as a Veterinary Pathologist; and Dr Rutuparna U. Ambegaonkargupte is a PG Scholar (Veterinary Medicine) pursuing her research on the impact of canine babesiosis on the heart.)

feactures fun and frolic

I can steal your heart away

He is your friend, your partner, your defender–Your Dog!
You are his love, his life, his leader.
He will be yours, faithful and true, to the last beat of his heart.
–Author Unknown

Here’s how Sheeba woofs her way in…

Battle half won…

feactures fun and frolicIt was the night of celebration for Verma family. After months of arguments and pleading by the kids and his wife Ruma, Ravi had agreed to get a pup home. He was just not in favour of a dog since he never liked being around them. He found them too whiny, too jumpy for comfort and the idea of having them in the house 24×7 was just not appealing. But Ruma’s upbringing had been just the contrary. She had never lived in a house without a dog. For her, ‘life without dogs was barren and lifeless’ – as she kept saying. And the kids developed a keen fondness for dogs because every time they went to their grandparents’ house, they did nothing but play with dogs. And somehow, this year on his elder son’s birthday, the kids conspired to persuade him and used all coercive words possible to get them a pup home.

For the next few weeks, the euphoria was at its peak. The minute he entered the house, the kids would love to share the anecdotes with their loving canine. His family was happy and that was all that mattered to him.

Puppy woes…

However, as days went by, Ravi realised it was not as easy as he had expected. His favourite pair of shoes were chewed upon. His socks had major holes in them and he found himself stepping on Sheeba’s pee every other day. As if that wasn’t enough, the kids were forever busy with the pet and to him it seemed like a perpetual circus with Sheeba jumping all over the place and the kids chasing her with yells and squeals.

One day, Sheeba chewed up his mobile phone and he decided to return her to the breeder. It was a very quiet dinner that evening. The kids ate with a heavy heart and they couldn’t take their eyes off Sheeba, who somehow sensing the tension in the room, sat very quietly in a corner, looking at them with pained, soulful eyes. That night, the kids took Sheeba to their room and wept. They couldn’t bear to lose her, but they knew Dad was serious this time. Ruma felt her heart would break if she let her little baby go like that from her life.

Sheeba the saviour…

Ravi decided to go and finish some work since he couldn’t sleep at all. He went to the drawing room and began working on his computer. It had been just an hour when Sheeba suddenly started barking. “Oh God, no peace at night either,” grumbled Ravi and continued working. But Sheeba would not stop barking and though Ravi yelled at her to stop, she wouldn’t. Soon Ravi couldn’t take it any more and he stormed to where he heard the bark. “Shut up!” he yelled and Sheeba looked at him and began jumping up and down, still barking. She kept looking inside the kitchen and then up at Ravi, but the barking wouldn’t stop.

Ravi was about to lose his cool, he opened the kitchen door and there it was. A strong hissing sound was coming from the kitchen. When Ravi switched on the light, he saw that the sound was coming from the geyser, which the house help had forgotten to switch it off and now it was emanating fumes and shaking. Ravi immediately rushed to switch it off and realised what grave danger they had been in. Sheeba by now had resorted to a slight whelp and looked up fearfully at Ravi.

The miracle happens…

By then, Ruma and the kids had also come, scared of what Ravi might do this time. As they all stared open mouthed, Ravi bent down, picked up Sheeba in his arms and hugged her. “And if not for this brat, it would have burst any minute,” he added. Sheeba, who was just too happy at being held by Ravi for the first time, began licking his face and Ravi couldn’t help but smile. Just when they thought the storm was over, Sheeba in all her excitement, peed, there was a moment of uncomfortable silence as Ruma and the kids were sure that Sheeba had blundered all over again. But then Ravi shook his head and turned to the bundle in his arms who looked at Ravi with his doe-eyes. “Little one, you need to get toilet trained soon. Kids, we start her toilet training regime from tomorrow. “Are you with me?” he asked and the kids jumped with joy. “Yes!!!” they screamed and wrapped themselves around their father’s legs in joy.

The bond develops…

And as Sheeba continued ‘woofing’ once again, Ruma couldn’t help but smile. She couldn’t believe it when Ravi hugged Sheeba again and said, “Little one, you and I have a lot to catch up on! You are after all, a part of the family now, aren’t you?” “Woof, woof!,” replied Sheeba, as the kids danced around, oblivious to the fact that it was late in the night. For the Verma family, it was a night of celebration, a whole new beginning.

That’s how pooches are…lovable, unselfish and a darling!

Dog training

St. Bernard : A brave heart saint

Known for his hauling abilities, intelligence and gentle ways, St. Bernard is a gentle giant. Who seems to have sixth sense about impending dangers and beneath this powerful body lies a heart of gold…he can be your true companion…for life.

S t. Bernard are also called Saint Dogs, Noble Steeds, Alpenmastiff, or Barry Dogs while in some parts of North America, they’re also popularly known as “Saints” and true to their name, they are saints in all aspects. They are the gentlest of all breeds of dogs.
Strong and handsome…
A St. Bernard was originally bred for rescue and working dog. There are two varieties of the St Bernard: short-haired (smooth coat) and long-haired (rough coat). “Both varieties are of notable size and have a balanced, sturdy, muscular body with imposing head and alert facial expression,” tells Vishal Sethi.They are powerful, strong and muscular … with the most intelligent expression. Their head is strong and imposing. The skin of their forehead forms noticeable wrinkles. Their muzzle is short, nose is broad and ears are set high. But their eyes are fascinating…dark brown, mediumsized with friendly and intelligent expression. Their tail is broad and powerful but ends in a powerful tip.Their coat is dense but smooth. They are found in many colours like splash, mantle or broken mantle, (white, black, with a primary third colour ranging from light brown to orange to red to mahogany). A full-grown male can weigh between 72.5-110 kg and the approximate height is 27.5-35.5 inches.

Friendly disposition… gentle giants They are very loyal , affectionate and gentle. As per Carol Beck, if properly trained and socialized, St. Bernard are very people oriented, friendly, snugglers/leaners. “They need human touch and are very affectionate. Lazy but very smart, they are the true gentle giants,” she says.

Living with them…

“They are easy to keep, they just want to sleep at your feet,” tells Carol. But she advises that they are not for neat freaks as they shed lots of hair and drool. Even though they are protectors due to size but they are not watch dogs. They will lead the robbers to the family silver.

Sweetheart with children…Dog training

The St. Bernard is one of the gentle giants of the canine world. They are docile and are good around children (who are old enough to handle the Saint’s size), and though they aren’t overly playful, they are sweet and affectionate and like to be around their people.

They love children and seem to know the ones with whom they need to be gentle, like toddlers or frail youngsters or children with disabilities. Puppies need to be watched with children under three as they can be accidentally knocked down. Children should not be allowed to terrorize, poke eyes or ears and especially ride them like a horse. Parent supervision is extremely important with any dog.

“Definitely they have an understanding of a child’s way and are amazingly careful not to injure a child. They are excellent babysitters and companions,” adds Vishal.

Taking care of a St. Bernard puppy…

Vishal advises to get your puppy vaccinated and dewormed regularly. “Since the Saint is prone to bloat, feed him 2-3 meals a day. Whenever you take him out for a walk, keep him on a leash. Do not over- exercise your puppy as he is slow-moving and his bones are forming,” advises Vishal. Saints can have a stubborn streak, so puppy training classes are recommended for every St. Bernard. So, SOCIALIZE, SOCIALIZE, SOCIALIZE. A well socialized, properly trained St. Bernard is a joyous companion. “Expose a puppy to all sorts of experiences, sights, sounds, people, and places. Whatever is not acceptable at 150 lbs cannot be allowed as a puppy,” advises Carol.

“Since they are very eager to please and respond well to positive, consistent training, training them will not be a problem. Infact, you won’t have a better friend than your Saint,” tells Vishal.

Taking care of their exercise…

“Puppies need to have a lot of playtime; all exercise should be natural and not forced. Daily walks and fun interaction with their humans is essential. They’re dogs who love to romp and play but NOT dogs who enjoy long daily hikes (as a Lab or Golden Retriever might). They don’t have the high activity level of a Jack Russell terrier, nor do they need the constant, intense mental stimulation of a Border Collie. They’re ready to go with you at all times but if you’re just waiting around, a Saint will sleep until you’re ready to go,” tells Carol.


Grooming a St. Bernard is not any different than other dogs. They need frequent brushing, combing, nail trimming, and ear cleaning and bathing as necessary. They shed a lot of hair, especially when they “blow” their coats. It will be minimized if they are groomed daily. Clean your St. Bernard’s eyes frequently with a moist cotton-wool pad. Be sure to use a new one for each eye.

“Depending on the weather, the level of excitement, and the shape of the dog’s jowls, most Saints will drool on occasion,” adds Vishal.

Taking care in summers…

“The dog will do well as long as there is a cool dry place to nap and plenty of fresh cool water. It must be remembered that going from an air conditioned place into the heat can be disastrous. Abrupt changes in temperature are extremely hard on a Saint,” warns Vishal.

Games they love to play…

They basically enjoy sleeping and eating as adults. Each dog is different but some like to play ball, gnawing on a hard rubber chew toy, carrying around a stuffed toy in their mouths, swimming (while others despise water). Most enjoy carting, weight pulling and training in Obedience work. “I really don’t know if they enjoy the training or the fact that they are with their human and want to please. They are very much a people dog,” adds Carol.

Watch out for health problems…

Canine hip dysplasia, epilepsy, entropion, cardiac disorders and we’re seeing a lot of cancer.

“In short, the Saint Bernard is a magnificent, wonderful breed. Let one into your heart and you’ll be hooked for life,” concludes Carol.

(With inputs from Vishal Sethi, whose Yodha Saints are nurtured with love and shown with pride and Carol Beck, who lives in USA and works with National Saint Bernard Rescue.)

Heart Matters

The dog looked obviously in discomfort, with his tongue hanging out, panting for breath. After a thorough examination, I told the owner, “Your dog has a heart problem.” Oh!, she said, sounding surprised, “You mean dogs have a heart?” I am not exaggerating, this is true and it happened 18 years ago, at a time when I had gone against convention to study cardiology in dogs. Ok, so maybe this particular client didn’t exactly have a brilliant IQ, but understanding of heart diseases in pets was at an astonishing low in those days. Things have changed now, and poeple don’t seem surprised when an ECG is suggested as part of a preoperative workup or when cardiac diseases are diagnosed in their pets.

Heart disease in dogs

One common question I encounter is do dogs get heart attacks? Heart attacks or myocardial infarcts are extremely rare in dogs. However, there are other heart diseases which are prevalent, depending on the breed, age and sex. The larger breeds commonly suffer from a condition affecting the heart muscle called ‘dilated cardiomyopathy’. In this condition, the heart muscles get progressively weaker till the pumping action of the heart is hampered, causing a build up or congestion of blood in the lungs or  abdomen. This condition ultimately leads to congestive heart failure and is generally seen in dogs above 4 years of age. In some breeds, this problem could be due to deficiency of carnitine, which is an amino acid found in meat. So, vegetarian dogs have a higher chance of being affected. In some dogs, the uptake of carnitine by the cardiac muscle is reduced, and they can be supplemented with carnitine powder in their diet. Special cardiac diets are available which incorporate all the ingredients needed for a dog with heart disease. The other common entity is called ‘valvular heart disease’. This is commonly seen in smaller breeds. Since this is an age related condition, it is most commonly seen in dogs over 7-years of age. In this condition, the heart valves undergo an age-related deterioration.

The valve leaflets curl up with age, so that when the heart pumps blood, part of it flows backward through the defective valve. The end result is the same- fluid gets built up in the lungs, ultimately causing heart failure.

Signs of heart disease

Unfortunately, symptoms of heart disease in dogs are insidious. The dogs slows down and gets tired after exercise or exertion. The owner often mistakes this for signs of normal ageing, or thinks that the pet is lazy and needs to be exercised more. This is followed by coughing, which is seen after excitement or exertion or at nights. The cardiac cough is a dry cough, and owners describe it as ‘the dog trying to clear his throat’. Breathlessness is seen for a prolonged period after exercise, and in advanced stages, even at rest. Sometimes the abdomen gets bloated due to filling up of fluid (called ascites). Swelling of lower legs (called oedema) may also be seen. If there are rhythm disturbances, the dog may have episodes of fainting. In chronic, advanced cases, there is weight loss. It is therefore very important for the owner to have a high index of suspicion. If these diseases are detected early, they can be managed better. Also the incidence of heart disease is very high- 70% of dogs above 7 years have heart problems.


An yearly cardiac examination for dogs over 7 years, which includes a physical examination, X-rays and electrocardiogram is advised. If signs of heart disease are noticed, contact your vet. If heart disease is diagnosed, diet modification, along with certain medications will be started. These will have to be continued throughout your pet’s life, with modifications done whenever necessary. So remember, timely intervention is the key to an early diagnosis of heart disease.

(Dr. Sangeeta Vengsarkar Shah (Ph : 24461748) has a specialisation in cardiology.)