New treatments for congestive heart failure

Congestive heart failure is when the heart weakens and can no longer work efficiently. The heart is a superb pump and when it fails, fluid tends to build up — either in the lungs or the abdomen.

There are many new and excellent medical drugs to help the heart beat more efficiently and steadily. What I would like to touch on are some of the dietary and non-drug treatments which are coming to light. Realize though, that many of these treatments are just now being subjected to controlled studies to determine if they truly are helping dogs with cardiac problems.

Some dogs with heart failure are classic couch potatoes — overweight and not active. Obesity can harm your dog’s heart in many ways — just as in people. Hypertension, increased heart rates, and decreased exercise all can occur with obesity, sometimes turning a mild heart problem into a more serious one. Overweight dogs are also much more prone to respiratory problems, which just compound the whole situation. So keep Bowser trim!

At the other end of the spectrum, we see what is called cardiac cachexia. These are dogs who are losing weight, including muscle mass. Poor absorption of nutrients can lead to weakness, a poorly functioning immune system, and even less desire to eat. Dogs may lose their appetite from some of the medications they are taking. Or the decrease in oxygen to the gastrointestinal system (due to the heart disease) can, at the same time, limit their absorption of nutrients and cause a hypermetabolic state. That means you have to pull out all the stops to get dogs with cardiac cachexia to eat the necessary nutrients. Warming food up, home-cooked meals and garlic powder (not garlic salt) all seem to help stimulate appetites.

Dogs with congestive heart failure can also benefit from sodium reduction — just like humans. Retaining extra sodium causes your dog to retain extra fluid and makes it harder for the heart to pump. Normal dog foods have about 0.47% sodium on a dry matter basis. For moderate sodium restriction, you want about 0.2%, and 0.1% or less sodium (dry matter basis) for very severe sodium restriction. Your veterinarian can tell you which foods fit these descriptions, or you can call the pet food makers.

While sodium-restricted pet foods has a reputation for being unpalatable, that is changing. Doing a gradual switchover from Fido’s favorite food can be all that is required. Do beware of treats! Many of these have quite a bit of sodium.

Potassium is another dietary component that affects how the heart works. Too much or too little can have serious consequences. Dogs on certain diuretics should have their potassium checked periodically. Kidney problems can show up when dogs are on a wide combination of diuretics, sodium restriction and medications to enhance the pumping of the heart. Remember, never change your dog’s drugs or dosages without first checking with your veterinarian.

L-carnitine is a dietary supplement that shows promise for helping some dogs in heart failure. This is a component of fatty acid metabolism — the way in which heart muscle gets its energy. Originally, this was tried on Boxers with cardiomyopathy (a specific type of heart failure), and it seemed to help. It may take weeks to months to see an improvement, but it’s safe. Expense can be a factor for large dogs, but about 40% of all dogs with cardiomyopathy seem to benefit from some extra carnitine.

Taurine hit the news as a factor in cardiomyopathy in cats. Since the feline research, it’s been tried in dogs with some notable successes. American Cocker Spaniels develop heart failure of a certain type which often responds quite well to a combination of l-carnitine and taurine. While that seems to be breed specific, Golden Retrievers with heart failure are now being studied in the hopes that taurine may help them, too. (Chicken is high in taurine.)

Two promising nutraceuticals (nutrients which may have medical benefits, but are not prescription at this time) are fish oils (with high levels of omega-3 fatty acids) and Coenzyme Q. These are supplements which have been shown to help some people and are now being tried on pets. The advantage to many of these nutraceuticals is that they seem to be very safe — so even if they don’t help, they shouldn’t hurt.

If your dog is diagnosed with congestive heart failure, this will give you some additional therapies to discuss with your veterinarian. While the treatments mentioned above won’t replace many cardiac drugs, they may help to increase the length and quality of your pet’s life. And that’s something we all strive for.

New cancer research for pets

Results from two recent surveys conducted by Morris Animal Foundation report cancer as the leading cause of disease-related death for dogs in the United States. With ownership of these companion animals rising to more than 55 million (1997 U.S. Pet Food Institute statistics), dog owners need to learn how to detect the symptoms of cancer and understand prevention techniques in order to help their canine family members lead healthier, happier lives.

To pinpoint pet owners’ concerns regarding their animals’ health and well-being, Morris Animal Foundation conducted two animal health surveys to help guide the Foundation in meeting the health needs of animals through advances in veterinary medicine. The first survey appeared in our own newsletter, Animal News. The second survey was conducted by the Foundation with the cooperation of Veterinary Information Network Inc. and its Pet Care Forum on America Online. In both surveys, dog owners identified cancer as the leading health concern facing their pet. Cat owners responding to the online survey concurred. To address this concern, the Foundation is funding 13 studies this year which focus on various aspects of canine cancer.

Any animal can get cancer. Therefore, it’s important for you to have your veterinarian perform routine and thorough physical examinations on your pets yearly or any time your dog or cat appears to be sick. Older animals should be examined twice a year.

The cause of most cancers is unknown, making prevention difficult. However, spaying or neutering can decrease the risk of breast or prostate cancer in your dog. As is the case in humans, the sooner you detect cancer in your pet, the better the chances are that it can be successfully treated.

The most common visible sign of cancer is a lump or bump. However, tumors involving internal organs are not visible. Other symptoms to watch for are behavioral changes such as inactivity or unwillingness to play. The onset of cancer may also be accompanied by weight loss or gain, diarrhea, or vomiting. With some dogs, clinical signs are so slight, you might not notice anything. That’s why routine physical examinations by your veterinarian are so important.

Not too many years ago, a diagnosis of cancer meant a sure death for most dogs. Things have changed. The good news is that advances in veterinary medicine have allowed for more treatment options. Many regimens have been improved and may also be used together to increase the number of these treatment options. New approaches under development continue to improve the veterinarian’s ability to treat this dreadful disease. Depending on the type of cancer, treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, nutritional therapy, immunotherapy, gene therapy, or a combination may be used.

The bad news is that, unfortunately, there are many cancers that simply cannot be cured. While we can extend and improve the quality of life in many instances, the cancer still wins in far too many cases.

Morris Animal Foundation continually works with scientists to find new ways to fight this disease and help provide a healthier tomorrow for your furry friends. To date, the Foundation has sponsored nearly 40 studies that address existing canine cancers, as well as possible treatments. Through these studies, the Foundation provides veterinarians with advances in diagnostic procedures, improved understanding about cancer and its progression, and new methods of treatment.

Rob Hilsenroth, DVM, is Executive Director of Morris Animal Foundation. This nonprofit organization sponsors animal health studies at veterinary schools and institutions throughout the U.S. and in other parts of the world. All annual unrestricted contributions to the foundation support health programs — not the cost of administration or fund-raising.

If you’d like to make a contribution, write Morris Animal Foundation, 45 Inverness Drive East, Englewood CO 80112. For more information, call (800) 243-2345or visit

Pain control

There’s no question that dogs feel pain. But because they are the descendants of wolves, they often attempt to hide their pain to avoid showing weakness. Since they have different degrees of stoicism and tolerance to pain, it can sometimes be challenging to pinpoint the source of the pain.

Only when we identify subtle signs of the pain can we provide relief from discomfort. Less-than-obvious signs include excessive panting, shivering, rapid breathing, a rapid heart rate, elevated body temperature, and frequent changing of position while lying down or sitting. Dogs with ear infections may shake their heads or scratch their ears frequently. They may also lick and chew at painful areas, which might be mistakenly interpreted as itchiness. Since dogs don’t necessarily volunteer what degree of discomfort they’re experiencing, it’s up to owners and veterinarians to figure it out and address the problem appropriately. This is especially true for dogs that have undergone surgery.

Any major surgical procedure that involves entering a body cavity (such as the chest or belly) or cutting into bone warrants pain control medication in some form. The most painful surgeries are those that involve bone penetration, and veterinarians give pain medications before these surgeries, as well as afterwards. The length of time after surgery that pain control is needed is variable. If healing is expected to be prolonged, as with many bone repair procedures, pain relievers are usually administered for several days.

Pain control in dogs is important not only for humane reasons, but also because adequate pain management facilitates a more rapid recovery.

This is especially important in the immediate post-operative phase as a dog is awakened from anesthesia. It helps the dog have a smoother, and in many cases, more rapid recovery. Dogs that have their pain well managed will progress quicker to eating, drinking and getting up to relieve themselves. In addition, these dogs are more likely to be sent home sooner.

Owners need to exercise discretion and common sense, however, when using pain-control drugs for their dogs after surgery. They can actually be harmful to the patient if the dog is feeling so little pain that he tries to resume normal activities too soon. Dogs should be discouraged from too much activity and may even need to be confined until a substantial amount of healing has taken place. This is certainly true for patients that have undergone bone surgery.

Traditional means of pain control in dogs involves the use of pain-relieving (analgesic) drugs. Generally, the most common analgesics used by veterinarians for dogs fall into one of four categories: Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), corticosteroids, local anesthetics, and morphine-derived narcotics.

NSAIDS are a large group of analgesic drugs that include aspirin and carprofen, among others. These drugs interfere with some of the biochemical pathways that cause swelling, and in so doing, contribute substantially to pain control. These drugs are useful in controlling mild to moderate pain. But dogs tend to be very sensitive to them and caution in dosing is important in order to avoid stomach ulcers and problems with kidney function.

Corticosteroids are another distinct group of drugs that are very potent anti-inflammatories. They include such drugs as prednisone, dexamethasone, triamcinolone, and others. Corticosteroids can be given in a variety of different ways such as: into a vein, under the skin, into the muscle or joint spaces, or orally. They’re also available as short-acting or long-acting preparations, which adds to their utility. Corticosteroids do have an array of side effects in dogs such as increased drinking, eating, and urination, and can even cause thinning skin and a pot-bellied appearance if used long-term. These effects are reversible, however, and steroids remain a very important group of anti-inflammatory medications for more chronic situations. They’re not generally useful for post-operative pain relief.

Local anesthetics act by blocking the nerves that conduct pain sensations to the central nervous system. They’re very effective in controlling pain, although their effects are generally short-lived. These drugs must be given locally in the region where surgery is being performed. Also, they block nerves that control muscle use, so the dog may not be able to move about well while they’re in effect.

Morphine-based drugs are the most potent analgesic drugs available for use in dogs. These narcotics have no anti-inflammatory properties like the drug classes previously discussed, but rather they interfere with the perception of pain on a neurological level. They generally have no lasting side effects, but they’re extremely powerful and careful dosing practices are essential. They can be given orally, intravenously, or by injection.

The narcotic drug fentanyl acts similarly to morphine, but can be given with a transdermal patch that’s applied to the skin with an adhesive. Narcotics are most effective if given before the pain starts, so they’re often given preoperatively. They have the added benefit of causing drowsiness and decreased activity.

Morris Animal Foundation is supporting a study by Dr. Kris T. Kruse-Elliott of the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine. Dr. Kruse-Elliott and her colleagues are investigating the analgesic power of transdermal fentanyl versus administration of morphine in the spinal canal before surgery (called “epidural” administration). Among other important objectives, the veterinarians conducting the study will evaluate the length of analgesia provided by these different means of narcotic administration for dogs undergoing bone surgery. The study results will help veterinarians choose the most appropriate route of administration for pain control drugs in dogs that require bone surgery.

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Rob Hilsenroth, DVM, is Executive Director of Morris Animal Foundation. This nonprofit organization sponsors animal health studies at veterinary schools and institutions throughout the U.S. and in other parts of the world. All annual unrestricted contributions to the foundation support health programs — not the cost of administration or fund-raising. If you’d like to make a contribution, write Morris Animal Foundation, 45 Inverness Drive East, Englewood CO 80112. For more information, call (800) 243-2345 or visit

Canine colitis

Diarrhea is a common condition that almost every dog owner will experience at some point — in the dog, not necessarily the owner. Most often, the condition is inconvenient but brief, lasting only a day or two. Diarrhea that lasts longer than a few days or is particularly severe (with the dog showing other signs of illness such as lethargy, vomiting, or a fever) can indicate a more serious problem.

Diarrhea refers to any condition that results in an increased fluid component to the stool. The condition can originate in either the small or large intestine (also called the colon) and, depending on the origin, the characteristics of the stool are different. Small intestinal diarrhea is characterized by large volumes of watery stool and can be accompanied by the other signs of illness described above. In contrast, dogs with large intestinal diarrhea produce small amounts of stool and have increased urgency. These dogs may also have blood and/or mucus in their feces. Large intestinal diarrhea is often referred to as colitis, which means inflammation of the colon.

Colitis is caused by any one of a variety of injuries that usually involve the innermost lining of the colon (called the mucosa). The mucosa, as the name suggests, has numerous mucus glands that protect the colon from injury and lubricate the passage of feces. The main functions of the colon are to absorb water and store feces until the animal defecates. In dogs with colitis, water is not effectively absorbed, and the ability of the colon to store feces is impaired. Excessive amounts of mucus, and even blood, are often passed with the feces of dogs affected with colitis because of damage to the protective mucosa lining.

Inflammation in the colon can decrease the movement of the colon. The colon normally moves the feces slowly back and forth, enabling maximum absorption of fluids. When this movement is abnormally slowed, the contents pass too quickly through the colon and diarrhea ensues.

There are many different causes of canine colitis. Diet, parasites, bacterial infections, and even stress are among the more common causes of colitis in dogs. Fiber-responsive colitis describes large bowel diarrhea that resolves by adding fiber to the diet. In some instances, hypersensitivity or allergic reactions to certain components in the diet can cause a disease called inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) of the colon.

Whipworms, another common cause, are parasites that inhabit the large bowel and attach to the mucosa. These worms interfere with the colon’s ability to absorb water, and thus cause diarrhea.

Certain bacteria can also cause colitis. These bacteria normally live in the colon but, when conditions are right for these bacteria to overgrow, colitis develops. A species of bacteria called Clostridium perfringens is an extremely common cause of colitis in dogs. C. perfringens causes inflammation of the colon by producing a toxic substance called an enterotoxin. This toxin acts directly on the colon mucosa, causes the escape of fluid and salts (also called electrolytes), and results in decreased movement, which produces diarrhea.

In general, colitis is not difficult to diagnose, because the clinical symptoms are very specific for large bowel inflammation. As mentioned above, those symptoms include straining to defecate, production of scant amounts of watery feces that may contain mucus and/or blood, and increased urgency to defecate. The causes of colitis, however, can be more challenging to uncover. Your veterinarian may recommend trial diets with increased fiber or hypoallergenic diets to identify fiber-responsive colitis or IBD. A stool examination may reveal eggs of whipworms, indicating the need for a deworming agent.

Sometimes it’s necessary for your veterinarian to see the inside of the colon, directly, by using an instrument called an endoscope. He or she can then take small biopsies of the colon for microscopic examination. Colitis caused by C. perfringens is a diagnostic challenge because these bacteria are normal inhabitants of the colon. Thus, determining if the bacteria are truly the cause of the colitis is difficult. Often, veterinarians must administer antibiotics based on their clinical suspicion of C. perfringens overgrowth.

Morris Animal Foundation is supporting a study to uncover a more definitive way to diagnose C. perfringens infections that commonly cause colitis in dogs. Dr. Stanley Marks of the University of California-Davis’ School of Veterinary Medicine is working to design a “better mousetrap” for catching C. perfringens in the act of causing disease. In the study entitled, “Diagnosis and Epidemiology of Disease Caused by Enterotoxigenic Clostridium Perfringens Type A in Dogs,” Dr. Marks and his colleagues are working to establish a variety of tests that can be used together to more accurately diagnose this disease.

These tests include counting spores produced by the organisms in feces and measuring the amount of enterotoxin present in the feces. This should decrease the number of dogs that receive antibiotics unnecessarily, and will also help veterinarians uncover the actual cause of colitis in many patients. As veterinarians are better able to rule out C. perfringens as the causative agent in dogs with colitis, they will also be able to more rapidly identify the true cause and provide these patients with appropriate therapy.

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Rob Hilsenroth, DVM, is Executive Director of Morris Animal Foundation. This nonprofit organization sponsors animal health studies at veterinary schools and institutions throughout the U.S. and in other parts of the world. All annual unrestricted contributions to the foundation support health programs — not the cost of administration or fund-raising.

If you’d like to make a contribution, write Morris Animal Foundation, 45 Inverness Drive East, Englewood CO 80112. For more information, call (800) 243-2345 or visit

Heritage of the Hound

All dogs share many traits due to their common genetic background. But some dogs have been carefully bred for specialized traits. That factors in to what makes each breed different — along with physical traits. If you’re thinking about adding a dog to the family, it’s important to look into those traits and understand what they might mean in terms of the human/dog relationship.

The American Kennel Club (AKC) recognizes seven basic dog groups:

Sporting dogs — such as Cocker Spaniels and Retrievers — work with people to hunt game such as pheasant or ducks. These dogs have been selected for their desire to work with their owners; many also have a strong retrieval instinct. If a puppy is mouthy — always chewing on something … including your hands — he may have the retrieval instinct.

cocker spaniel

So, right from the start, you’ll need good chew toys to prevent destructive habits from developing. And to keep your dog “honestly” occupied, keep in mind that Retrievers can be taught to help carry laundry, lug firewood or pick up dropped items such as keys. Sporting dogs often do well in obedience and agility.

These dogs tend to be athletic and in need of daily exercise. The exact amount can vary quite a bit. A young male Labrador Retriever may be happiest with a two-mile run, twice a day. A mature Clumber Spaniel is pretty happy with a brisk walk around the block.

The Hound Group is next. There are two types of hounds. Sighthounds (such as Greyhounds or Borzoi) hunt visually and tend to be fast and often a bit aloof. Scent hounds (such as Beagles) hunt with their noses, often work in packs and tend to be quite companionable.

greyhounds playing

Hounds sometimes march to the tune of a different drummer — their nose! They don’t always see the need for close cooperation and can be a challenge in sports such as obedience or agility. On the other hand, lure coursing and field work are their cup of tea. Scent hounds can be noisy and big diggers; sighthounds are happiest with room to run.

The Working Group has a wide variety of dogs. They range from sled dogs to guarding dogs. Many are quite large. The guarding breeds, such as Mastiffs, can be quite protective and need plenty of socialization. The sledding breeds, which include the Siberian Husky, are happiest when they can run. And I’m talking long runs here, not once around the block. Guarding dogs tend to do a bit better in obedience, while the sledding breeds seem to prefer the more athletic outlet of agility.


When frustrated, guard dogs could become nuisance barkers, and sled dogs might just quietly dig large holes.

The Terriers are dogs designed to “go to earth” (digging out vermin). They’re born hunters and, quite often, they’ll have a streak of independence. They’re very smart dogs. Even so, they may require some finesse during training in order to make them realize most dog sports are team sports.


While some Terriers do end up as couch potatoes, many of them are very active. They can be problem chewers or diggers if not kept busy. And if you also raise exotic rodents, a Terrier may not be the best pet for you!

Non-Sporting is a catch-all group. These dogs are hard to classify. They range from the athletic, energetic Dalmatian, to the gentlemanly French Bulldog. Poodles are one of the best known members of this group (although they actually come from a sporting dog heritage). Many of these breeds are made up of active dogs who do best with plenty of exercise.


Toy Breeds, in general, were developed solely as companions and pets. Their small size makes them perfect for this way of life. But they’re not always a good choice for a family with young, rambunctious children.

yorkshire terrier

Some of the toy breeds have other heritages behind them, such as the Yorkshire Terrier — who could still happily dispatch a rat in the cellar — and the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, who may hunt sparrows in the garden.

The Herding Breeds are the last AKC group and very dear to my heart. These dogs were developed to help out with livestock control. For the short but tough Corgis, that meant cattle, while the Border Collie is first and foremost a sheep specialist.

border collie

These are dogs bred to work as partners with people and they tend to do quite well in obedience and agility. They’re happiest with a job to do and plenty of exercise. They can be problem chewers or barkers if bored.

It’s important to think about the heritage (or multiple heritages of your mixed breed dog) when choosing a pet for your family. If you enjoy competing in many dog sports, a herding or sporting breed might be the ideal choice. If you love winter sports and are thinking of skijoring or sledding, perhaps a working breed would be best.

While our dogs are often versatile enough to work well outside their genetic heritage, it’s wonderful for both of you when you can share some of the fun.