I read a heartbreaking story a few days ago. A seemingly healthy Doberman died suddenly from a condition called dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). A condition its owner was unaware he suffered from.
How devastating to lose a beloved pet to an illness you were unaware they had!
This horrible ailment can be a silent killer. But it’s my hope that if you know what to look for, you may catch some early warning signs. Early diagnosis and treatment can increase life expectancy and quality of life.
But unfortunately DCM is fatal.
What is dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM)?
DCM is a disease of the heart muscle that affects its ability to pump blood to the rest of the body. From the picture below you can see that the disease causes the heart to enlarge and the walls of the heart to thin.
Usually DCM affects one side of the heart more than the other. In this illustration, the left side is enlarged.
An enlarged heart becomes overloaded, has weakened contractions, and can’t pump blood properly to the rest of the body. Over time, this leads to congestive heart failure and death.
DCM occurs in dogs between the ages of 4 and 10 years old and more often in males than females.
It is most common in large and giant breeds like Dobermans, Boxers, Scottish Deerhounds, Irish Wolfhounds, Great Danes and Newfoundlands. But this condition also affects Cocker Spaniels.
Despite the prevalence in large breeds, DCM can happen to any breed but it’s not often found in small dogs… except for the Cocker.
Because some breeds are predisposed, there’s clearly a genetic component. But no one is certain what brings this malady on.
A deficiency in taurine or carnitine has contributed to DCM in Dobermans, Boxers and Cockers.
Other underlying conditions like low thyroid levels, inflammation of the heart muscle, prolonged rapid heart rate, and poor blood flow to the heart muscle can also cause DCM.
What are the signs of dilated cardiomyopathy?
A dog with DCM could die unexpectedly, never having exhibited any symptoms of this deadly condition… like that Doberman I read about. An irregular heart rhythm brought on by DCM is all it takes sometimes.
At first, the symptoms may be subtle and go undetected without a thorough exam. Breathing that has a muffled or crackling sound due to fluid buildup in the lungs isn’t something you would notice. Missing pulse waves (which cause an irregular heart rhythm) and slow capillary refill time (the time it takes for the color to return after pressing on the gums) are signs of DCM that you would find only if you were looking for them.
More obvious symptoms like lethargy, loss of appetite, rapid or excessive breathing, coughing (especially during activity), excessive panting, and reduced interest in exercise are all signs that something serious is wrong. The sooner you see your vet and they diagnose DCM, the faster you can begin treatment.
If your dog’s DCM has progressed to congestive heart failure, you’ll know by:
A swollen belly from fluid buildup
Fainting due to lack of oxygen flowing to the brain
A bluish gray tongue or gum color from poor oxygen flow
Weight loss due to inability to store healthy fat
Once the condition has progressed to heart failure life expectancy is 6 to 24 months depending on the breed and the progression of the disease. Dobermans are so severely affected by this disease they rarely live more than 6 months. Cockers will survive longer.
What is so sad about DCM is the signs seem to develop over night. But for months—maybe even years—the heart muscle abnormality is progressing silently.
If your vet suspects your dog is suffering from DCM, they will do a thorough examination. But they’ll want to run tests too. A chest x-ray, electrocardiogram, and an echocardiogram will help to determine how the disease is progressing.
How about treatments for DCM?
The treatments that exist will improve heart function and treat the symptoms. There is no cure. In fact in humans, a heart transplant would be indicated for this condition.
Your vet will prescribe drugs to improve heart contraction and slow rapid beating. Diuretics will control fluid buildup in the lungs.
Vasodilators are drugs that induce dilation of the blood vessels and vets often prescribe them for DCM.
If your dog has a taurine or carnitine deficiency, their treatment may include supplements or a food like Husse’s Ocean Care or Optimal Limited that have these nutrients. A thyroid problem will need thyroid treatment.
Your vet will decide the best course of action based on your dog’s needs. But the treatment will only improve your dog’s quality of life for their remaining time with you, which the treatment may lengthen somewhat.
This is one of those conditions we as pet parents can’t control. But we can educate ourselves so we may lessen our beloved pets’ suffering.
Has dilated cardiomyopathy affected your dog? Share your experience in the comment section above.