Dogs have our hearts for many reasons, but a recent Mayo Clinic study found owning a dog may be beneficial for human cardiovascular health because dog owners are more likely to be physically active, eat better, are less likely to smoke and have lower blood sugar than non-pet owners. Stress reduction has long been shown to help prevent heart disease and dogs are proven stress reducers — participants in a University of British Columbia study reported “significant reductions in stress” and “increased happiness and energy” after a session with a therapy dog, compared to a control group who didn’t go to one.
So now that we know how dogs can take care of our hearts, how can we take better care of theirs?
Watch their weight
Just like with people, excess weight can tax a dog’s heart so when it comes to feeding your dog, portion control is key. Philip Fox, DVM, head of cardiology service at the Animal Medical Center in New York City, recommends working with your veterinarian to develop a diet and exercise routine that suits your dog’s size and breed. And whatever you do, be conservative with snacks. “People tend to overdo the table food and treats,” says Fox. “I’m not talking about a little treat here and there, but a routine portion from the table usually contributes to obesity. It all adds up. And dog owners are often in denial.” Avoid refilling your dog’s bowl between mealtimes, and don’t leave food for other pets within your dog’s easy reach.
Surprisingly, it’s not just how much your dog eats but what they eat can that can contribute to heart issues. Bruce Kornreich, DVM, clinical cardiologist at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, mentions a recent FDA investigation linking grain-free diets with the development of a potentially serious heart problem called canine dilated cardiomyopathy. “Dogs on grain-free diets were coming in with bad looking hearts that had thin walls and couldn’t generate enough pressure to move blood forward, or had what we call systolic dysfunction,” he explains. “It’s unclear exactly what caused these problems, but there are concerns about diets with exotic sources of protein like kangaroo, and lentils, chickpeas or legumes listed in the first five ingredients,” Kornreich says, adding dog owners should also be wary of diets produced by boutique food companies without a veterinary nutritionist on staff.
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Book yearly vet visits
Fox says regular vet visits can detect congenital heart diseases that are present at birth as well as age-related heart issues, but a few symptoms can point to imminent heart trouble. Take your dog to the vet immediately if you notice:
- Difficulty breathing
- Rapid breathing
- Lung congestion
“There are some congenital diseases that will do much better if they’re appropriately addressed,” says Kornreich. “You’ll have the best outcome if you can identify a congenital defect early, have it appropriately diagnosed and characterized and if it’s amenable to therapy, seek the appropriate therapy.”
Keep up with heartworm meds
Kornreich says heartworm disease (where mosquito bites spread worms that grow on a dog’s organs) has been in every state in the country. Left untreated, it causes severe lung damage, heart damage, additional organ damage and can be fatal. Fortunately, there’s a once-monthly pill that keeps it at bay. “Heartworm is completely preventable, so all dogs should be tested then put on a heartworm preventative regime, no matter where in the country they live,” he says.
Keep a close eye on the old guys
Kornreich says the most common cause of heart disease in dogs is called age-associated mitral valve regurgitation (or a leaky heart valve) which can lead to congestive heart failure and what doctors call “poor outcomes.” Mind you, this kind of wear and tear on the ticker is common when your dog gets older. If you notice your dog taking more than 30 breaths a minute, take them in for tests stat, says Fox. “Heart failure can come on over 24 hours, so if you notice your dog breathing more rapidly and with more effort, take them to the vet. Fortunately, this can be treated with medication,” he says.
All in all, as it turns out, the best thing you can do for your dog’s heart health is to stay on top of their care. “People are always looking for a safe, organic thing that’s going to make a huge difference (in their dog’s health),” says Fox. “But there is no magic — it’s very basic.”
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