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Mending a broken heart

Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) is the second most common type of heart disease typically affecting medium to large breed dogs such as Dobermans, Great Danes, Boxers, German Shepherds, Labradors and Retrievers. It causes the heart muscle to stretch and become floppy eventually leading to heart failure as the heart cannot effectively pump blood around the body.

Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) is the second most common type of heart disease typically affecting medium to large breed dogs such as Dobermans, Great Danes, Boxers, German Shepherds, Labradors and Retrievers. It causes the heart muscle to stretch and become floppy eventually leading to heart failure as the heart cannot effectively pump blood around the body.

The course of the disease follows two distinct phases. The first is a long, silent phase where the heart is slowly enlarging. This phase can take many months to years and dogs show no outward signs of illness. The second phase is much shorter as the heart can no longer cope with dogs developing signs of congestive heart failure. At this point dogs become very unwell and their quality of life is severely compromised. Typical signs include coughing, weakness, increased breathing rates, breathlessness, collapse, weight loss and poor appetites. Veterinary intervention is essential at this point to support dogs and maintain their quality of life.

DCM is diagnosed with ultrasonography where specific measurements are taken to show enlargement and dilation of the heart. Most dogs are diagnosed with the disease only once they have entered the second phase of the illness as clinical signs become obvious and owners realise their dogs are unwell. Unfortunately at this point we are already facing a very difficult battle to stabalise patients and survival times of six months are considered a “good” response to treatment.

Ideally, we need to try and diagnose dogs in phase 1 of their disease when they have no clinical signs, as starting them on certain medications at this point significantly improves both their life expectancy and quality of life. The problem is that it’s just not practical or reasonable to suggest we perform ultrasonography on every medium to large breed dog in the Practice! However there are ways of assessing which dogs are most at risk and should have ultrasonography performed.

A simple blood test to check the levels of a substance called pro-BNP can be performed at the surgery. Pro-BNP is released into the bloodstream when heart muscle excessively stretches, such as in dogs with DCM. A high level of pro-BNP is a good indicator that a dog is more likely to have DCM. Not all dogs with a high pro-BNP level will have DCM and this is why ultrasound is considered the gold standard screening test. A normal pro-BNP test also does not mean your dog will not develop DCM in the future so annual blood screening is ideal. This blood test normally costs £62 but we have brought the cost of this test down to £15 until at least the end of August. This will include a free consultation with one of our Vets to examine your dog and to further discuss this disease.

We are recommending that any medium to large breed dog that is middle aged or older (this obviously varies from breed to breed and can be as young as 3yrs old in certain giant breeds) has a blood test to measure pro-BNP levels. Dogs with elevated levels should then be assessed with ultrasound which we can perform at one of our surgeries.

Dilated Cardiomyopathy can remain hidden for sometimes years but is fatal once it progresses to the 2nd phase. Treating dogs in their preclinical phase 1 can have a big impact on both their quality and quantity of life. For more information or to arrange an appointment, please contact one of our surgeries.

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