When the diagnosis of congestive heart failure is received it can be incredibly hard to process this news. As pet parents, the news of a terminal disease can send us searching for ways to improve the quality of the time that our pets have left with us. For dogs with congestive heart failure, this time can be very short, so every possible avenue for additions to their health program should be investigated by you and your veterinarian as a team.
Congestive heart failure treatment
Management of congestive heart failure is split into two parts, medical management and lifestyle changes such as nutrition and supplements. The more changes we make to a dog’s lifestyle, in combination with the right medications, the happier your dog will be.
Your veterinarians may prescribe medication to help support your dog’s heart function. Your dog may need to take these daily for the rest of his or her life. In congestive heart failure, the heart is unable to pump blood efficiently around the body. Medications help the heart to beat with increased force and help to remove the excess fluid that can build up in the lungs. You may find your dog needs to go to the bathroom a little more frequently when taking these medications!
Reducing your dog’s high-intensity exercise and swapping this out for gentle short walks will reduce the chance of syncope.
If your dog is overweight, losing weight can significantly improve their overall health, including their heart health. Your veterinarian may suggest a prescription food formulated to specifically address weight loss. If you are feeding your dog a reduced-calorie diet, remember not to feed any extra treats or human food. Human food can contain a high number of calories that our dogs don’t need and can undo all the hard work we have put in by feeding a prescription weight loss diet.
Nutrition is important. For dogs with heart disease, a sodium-restricted diet is beneficial. Sodium and chloride are linked to water retention in the body. As there is already a problem with water retention in heart disease, we do not want extra sodium or chloride adding to this burden.
There are prescription foods formulated to have low sodium and chloride concentrations that are available from a veterinary clinic that can help your dog’s overall health. Ask your veterinarian for a recommendation.
When trying to choose the best dog food for heart disease, it must comply with The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) standards at an absolute minimum. AAFCO standards are considered the minimum for healthy dog food and have recommendations on the percentage of fat, protein, carbohydrates, etc. that the dog food must comply with to be considered safe and healthy for your dog.
Omega 3 fatty acids are beneficial to heart health, so your veterinarian may suggest this if your dog’s diet doesn’t already contain a good source of omega acids. Omega 3 fatty acids have an anti-inflammatory effect on the heart, as well as an anti-arrhythmic effect.
When choosing an Omega 3 supplement, look for one made for dogs, as the bioavailability (the amount your dog can absorb from the intestines) is much higher compared to Omega 3 supplements made for people.
Adding potassium may be needed if your dog is on certain heart medications. Your vet can run a blood test to check if this is needed. Potassium supplements are oral liquids and are easy to give, but the dosage depends on the blood levels, so regular testing is advised.
Other supplements shown to have clinical benefits on heart health include taurine, L-carnitine, Coenzyme Q10, and vitamin E. You will need to work with a veterinarian or veterinary nutritionist to work out the exact concentrations your dog will need. Alternatively, some prescription diets recommended for the treatment of heart disease already contain these ingredients, making it easier to supplement your dog’s nutrition.
Towards the later stages of congestive heart failure, some dogs will have a reduced appetite or lose their appetite completely. We know that dogs love their meals so it’s important that your dog is still able to enjoy eating. There are appetite stimulants that can be prescribed by your veterinarian to help. You can also try sitting with your dog and hand feeding to encourage your dog to eat. Sometimes adding a little extra treat to his or her bowl, such as a small amount of shredded chicken, may do the trick. There are natural appetite stimulants available and B vitamins are most commonly used. Check with your veterinarian as they may recommend a preferred brand or supplement that contains all the things you are looking for rather than have to feed multiple different supplements.
Can I make a home-cooked diet for my dog with heart disease?
While possible, it’s not recommended to rely exclusively on a home-cooked diet, as the risk of imbalanced nutrition with the wrong ratio of essential elements such as sodium, is high. Ask your veterinary nutritionist for help making a balanced meal plan instead.
Why don’t dogs need statins?
In humans, low cholesterol is beneficial to our heart health but in dogs, the mechanism of heart failure is not related to cholesterol build-up in the arteries. Therefore, statins would not help with congestive heart failure in dogs.
I have more than one dog, can they both be on a heart-safe diet?
Usually, this shouldn’t cause a problem, unless your other dog has a separate medical condition that is being treated. It's always best to ask a vet first before switching diets.
Nutrition plays an important role in the management of congestive heart failure combined with medication and lifestyle changes. While the life expectancy of dogs with congestive heart failure can be brief, we can ensure that their last few months are as comfortable as possible. Learning about how to best take care of your furry companion can be stressful as there is a lot of information to keep track of. Don’t be afraid to reach out to our veterinarians for a more in-depth chat about your dog's health.