DCM in dogs, otherwise known as dilated cardiomyopathy, is a progressive and mostly irreversible condition. It’s a disease that you’ve probably heard of if you’re a pet owner. However, maybe you haven’t had the chance to get into the details of it.

In this article, we will focus on the condition, break down its causes, symptoms, and steps you can take to avoid the development of cardiomyopathy in your dog.

Understanding DCM in Dogs

In most cases, it develops in the lower chambers of the heart as they become enlarged. However, in rare cases, it can also develop in the atria (the upper heart chambers).

When DCM develops, the heart muscles become thinner, and the amount of blood they can pump to the body decreases. As a result, fluids can accumulate in the lungs and other tissues.

If left untreated, cardiomyopathy in dogs will lead to the overload of the heart muscle, resulting in CHF(congestive heart failure).

Symptoms of DCM in Dogs

The major DCM symptoms in dogs are usually caused by the mentioned fluid buildup in the lungs, which leads to decreased oxygenated blood to the body. 

With that in mind, the most prevalent DCM dog symptoms are:

  • Lethargy
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Coughing
  • Weight loss/low appetite
  • Sudden collapse
  • Panting
  • Abdominal distension

Sometimes, dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs gets misdiagnosed because the dogs appear to be in fine health. However, some dogs simply do not show the usual symptoms of DCM.

Thorough exams may be able to reveal the more subtle canine dilated cardiomyopathy symptoms, such as:

  • Sounds of irregular breathing because of fluid accumulation in the lungs
  • Pulse deficits
  • Capillaries in the gums refilling slowly, which indicate issues with blood circulation
  • Premature heart contractions that come from or above the ventricles

If you notice any of these signs of DCM in dogs in your pet, make sure you call your vet and discuss your options after a thorough exam. 

Causes of DCM in Dogs

Usually, the risk of the condition increases with age, and it generally affects older dogs between the ages of 4 and 10.

The definitive cause of DCM is still unknown. However, research suggests that several factors could affect the development of the disease. Nutrition, genetics, and infectious disease can all play a role.

There are several things pet owners want to know about DCM. For example — is dilated cardiomyopathy genetic in dogs? Scientific evidence seems to suggest that some breeds might be more susceptible to the condition.

When assessing the most popular dog breeds, you will see that, unfortunately, some of them are pretty susceptible to developing DCM. 

DCM in Dobermans, Cocker Spaniels, Great Danes, Boxers, Newfoundlands, Irish Wolfhounds, and Scottish Deerhounds seem to be more prominent, with males being more susceptible than females in some breeds.

Lastly, carnitine and taurine deficiencies may also contribute to the formation of the disease in some breeds, such as Cocker Spaniels and Boxers

The topic of nutrition and dilated cardiomyopathy is highly debated, so we will discuss it in more detail further below, together with a suggested DCM dog food list, as in what owners should avoid when shopping.

Diagnosis

A cardiac exam can detect the abnormalities in the heart functioning in most cases — if they are present. The diagnosis is usually made with the help of chest x-rays, electrocardiograms (EKG), and echocardiograms.

X-rays are done to reveal whether the dog has an enlarged heart or not, and it may also shed more light on the condition of the lungs.

Echocardiography can be used to scan for early stages of canine dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs that show symptoms of the condition. 

On the other hand, Holter ECGs are used in the cases when 24-testing is required to confirm heartbeat irregularities in breeds that are susceptible to the disease.

All in all, your vet will perform a series of medical tests and a thorough physical examination to establish the diagnosis.

Treatment and Care

Now that we’ve managed to answer the question — what is DCM in dogs? — and talked a bit about the underlying causes and diagnosis. Next, it’s time to discuss treatment and care.

Treatment consists of more than one part. Several medications are generally used, some to improve the blood flow and some for helping with arrhythmias.

To combat all the effects of dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs, treatment may also include diuretics that reduce the accumulation of fluids in the lungs and other tissues. Lastly, a vasodilator may also be given for better circulation.

Unless the dog’s symptoms are severe, it is unlikely to need long-term hospitalization.

Depending on what caused the disease, it may not be possible to reverse the effects of DCM. In such cases, the dog’s condition is likely to keep getting worse. Eventually, pets in the final stages of DCM in dogs will be at high risk of heart failure.

After establishing the presence of DCM, experts usually recommend regular follow-up examinations to see how the disease progresses. During these examinations, vets may perform thoracic radiographs, blood work, EKG, and blood pressure tests.

Owners should also monitor their pet’s overall behavior in case there are any outward signs of progression. This should be done throughout all stages of DCM in dogs.

Labored breathing, lethargy, fainting, coughing, and a distended abdomen could all be signs of the disease progressing. Unfortunately, even if you follow both specific and basic dog care guidelines, most dogs with the disease will eventually succumb to the condition. 

The final prognosis will be based on the severity and the progression of DCM. In general, most dogs are given around 6–24 months to live. 

Specific lifestyle changes, like using a DCM-safe dog food list to improve nutrition, might help. Still, in most cases, the disease will, unfortunately, end with congestive heart failure.

DCM and Dog Food

If you’ve already started doing your own research, you’ve probably come across the FDA’s statements alerting pet owners of possible links between DCM in dogs and grain-free pet foods. Especially those containing lentils, potatoes, and peas.

In 2019, the FDA released a series of statements related to DMC cases they explored, along with 16 food brands most frequently named in those DCM cases. However, they were still unable to confirm the link between diet and the onset of the disease.

Finally, the FDA’s report on DCM in dogs in 2020 concluded that DCM is a multifactorial issue. Age, breed, weight, gastrointestinal disease, infection, and atopy may all play a role in its development.

So, why did the FDA start the investigation? A couple of veterinarians reported to the agency that they had witnessed an increase in DCM in dogs on grain-free diets.

Initially, it was thought that legume-rich diets might result in low taurine levels, which may eventually result in DCM.

After the FDA DCM update in 2020, it was established that taurine levels didn’t decrease in every case, including the legume-rich diet. 

Also, FDA experts found that dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs that don’t eat grain-free diets as well.

As of now, the relationship between DCM in dogs and diet remains complicated, with several factors coming into play.

  • Taurine: This amino acid is believed to affect heart health and, in dogs and cats, it’s also known to help activate bile acids in the liver. Dogs can produce taurine from methionine and cysteine, two other amino acids. 

The questioned grain-free FDA dog food list is known to be low in methionine, which may affect taurine development.  However, proper supplementation should solve the problem.

  • Proteins: Taurine (as well as cysteine and methionine) are naturally found in animal-based proteins. As such, a diet that includes meat should keep taurine levels in check. 

The problem is that, in some cases, lower-quality animal proteins do not provide adequate amounts of cysteine and methionine for sufficient taurine production. 

With that in mind, if you’re asking how to prevent DCM in dogs, assessing protein quality is something you should do when feeding your pet.

  • Cooking and Amino Acids: Cooking protein at excessive temperatures can destroy the amino acids. On the other hand, not cooking the food enough may lead to the decreased absorption of certain nutrients.
  • Fiber: The best dog food to avoid regarding DCM is high in certain types of fibers that bind with bile acids. This causes them to pass through the pet’s digestive system instead of being reabsorbed. 

More research needs to be conducted in this area. Still, some experts believe that dietary fiber may be an important factor here.

The Dilated Cardiomyopathy and Dog Food Connection: Foods To Avoid

As already stated, the FDA disclosed that “grain-free” foods and taurine deficiencies are not necessarily to blame when it comes to DCM in dogs.

According to experts, the main problem is focusing on a diet that uses the following foods as primary ingredients (often landing top spots in the ingredient list of some grain-free foods):

  • Seeds
  • Potatoes
  • Legumes
  • Peas
  • Lentils 

When looking at the connections between grain-free and DCM, these main ingredients present the problem.

Furthermore, supplementing with meat, taurine, and/or grains to counter the problem won’t change the disease. 

Only complete diet changes can lead to improvements and even normalized heart functions in dogs at earlier DCM stages. 

Unfortunately, in more evolved cases of dilated cardiomyopathy, dog owners will also need to provide continuous medication for their pets along with regular monitoring apart from changing their diets.

Also, you should know that diet changes shouldn’t be made abruptly. Instead, they should be done moderately, with gradually mixing the new food with the old one to avoid potential problems such as diarrhea or vomiting.

If you’ve been feeding your dog with foods from the FDA DCM dog food list, you shouldn’t panic. As the findings suggest, there’s a link between these ingredients and heart problems, but they aren’t affecting every dog.

Simply discussing your concerns with your vet along with a physical exam may be able to help determine if there’s an actual need for any changes or not.

What We Know

As of the latest FDA updates, it is clear that DCM is most likely a multifactorial phenomenon — a combination of metabolic, genetic, and dietary factors. 

In short, a cause-and-effect relationship between grain-free diets and DCM along with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy in dogs has not yet been proven.

We also mustn’t forget that not all grain-free diets are equal from the standpoint of nutrition. So singling out one ingredient, or the entire “grain-free” idea, can be misguided.

Lastly, can you reverse DCM in dogs?

Experts agree that a certain percentage of cases may be reversed if they are related to nutrition. Some pets may also make a full recovery in tachycardia-induced cases after the arrhythmia-related issues have been resolved.

However, in more advanced and severe cases, especially where CHF symptoms are also present, pets are unlikely to recover.

Cardiomyopathy in Cats

When assessing the available data, we can say that hypertrophic cardiomyopathy in cats is a lot rarer than in dogs. 

Historically, it was linked to taurine deficiency. However, cat food manufacturers managed to correct the problem by altering their ingredient lists, making the lives of their felines potentially longer. 

In the case of cats, feline hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is mainly characterized by either a dilated left ventricle contracting poorly or enlarged atria. 

In most cases, the condition is irreversible and leads to congestive heart failure, just like in dogs. 

Quality cat food is crucial, as not all foods are made the same. So it may mean spending a little bit more. Still, it will help your cat live longer and avoid dilated cardiomyopathy in cats.

FAQ

How long can a dog live with dilated cardiomyopathy?

When it comes to long-term DCM prognosis, the numbers vary. 

Sadly, in cases where there are already signs of congestive heart failure, dogs die within six months of establishing a diagnosis. In more severe cases, pets may die within weeks.

On the other hand, there are occasional cases when dogs may survive for 1–2 years, doing relatively well.

What are the signs of DCM in dogs?

The disease is characterized by ventricle dilation and thinning of the ventricular wall. In some cases, dilation may be present in all four heart chambers. 

This means that the heart’s ability to pump enough blood decreases, resulting in less oxygenated blood being delivered to the body and/or blood congestion in the lungs.

As a result, the most prevalent signs include lethargy, weakness, collapse, or/and weight loss.

The elevated heart rate, decreased oxygen supply, and increased demand for the same, plus the added ventricular wall stress, may also lead to cardiac arrhythmia.

Can a dog recover from DCM?

Some cases of DCM may be reversible if the underlying causes are diagnosed and treated in time.

Unfortunately, in most cases, the disease is irreversible and tends to be progressive. To slow down its development, asymptomatic cases of DCM may be treated with ACE inhibitors.

Other medications and strategies are also used to combat heart failure and rhythm abnormalities.

The therapy is always tailored to the pet’s needs. Still, as the disease is degenerative, medication dosages are usually increased as time passes.

What causes dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs?

The definitive cause of the disease in dogs hasn’t been established yet. However, it’s believed to have several contributing factors, including genetics, nutrition, and infectious diseases.

Experts believe that taurine and carnitine nutritional deficiencies may contribute to the development of dilated cardiomyopathy in certain dog breeds, like Cocker Spaniels and Boxers.

Furthermore, the evidence seems to suggest that certain breeds might have a genetic predisposition to the condition. 

Dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs is more common in breeds such as the Boxer, the Irish Wolfhound, Scottish Deerhound, Doberman Pinscher, Newfoundland, Cocker Spaniel, and the Great Dane.

Also, in some of those breeds, males seem to be more susceptible than females. 

Lastly, an FDA Investigation started to uncover the link between legume-rich and grain-free dog food and cardiomyopathy or DCM likelihood. Still, the latest evidence does not show definite links.

What do you feed a dog with DCM?

Generally, balanced and quality nutrition can be the best way to keep your four-legged friend healthy.

Owners should look for the best dog foods formulated by nutritional experts from a trusted brand with an adequate Nutrition Adequacy Statement, with research results, independent lab tests, and proven credentials.

Why grain-free is bad for dogs?

Pet foods labeled grain-free containing legume seeds, potatoes, lentils, and peas as main ingredients have initially been linked to DCM.

These ingredients may reduce the availability of taurine and other nutrients that contribute to the development of the condition.

However, the latest findings suggest that DCM is highly multifactorial, so diet alone is not the biggest culprit.

Conclusion

As we often say, prevention is the best medicine.

If your pet has a genetic predisposition or suffers from particular nutritional deficiencies, the best way to prevent the development of the condition is by educating yourself on the matter and taking the necessary precautionary steps.

Unfortunately, DCM in dogs is an irreversible and progressive condition.

However, there are still things you can do to reduce the chance of the disease and ensure that your pet stays with you for years to come, healthy and happy.

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