Updated February 2024, by Kristina Johansen
In this guide to diet for dogs with heart disease, our main focus will be on food, but we will also discuss other relevant topics such as:
- The role of omega-3 fatty acids
- Weight management
- Reluctance to eat
First, let’s start with a bit of basics.
What does my dog’s heart do?
Your dog’s heart looks and functions similarly to yours. It’s a 4-chambered, powerful muscle that works like a little pump, sending blood with oxygen and nutrients to every part of your dog’s body. It keeps your dog healthy and active while removing waste and carbon dioxide.
Why did my dog get heart disease?
Heart disease is relatively common in dogs, especially older ones. In some dogs, heart disease is congenital. This means a dog is born with heart problems, which are typically caused by genetic faults in a dog’s DNA that are present at birth.
In other cases, heart disease is acquired, meaning it develops due to problems a dog experiences throughout its lifetime, such as ageing, obesity, heartworm, and nutrition.
Dog versus human heart disease
The most common cause of heart disease in humans is coronary artery disease, a condition in which the blood vessels that supply blood and oxygen to the heart become narrowed due to the build-up of cholesterol deposits in the artery walls. This can lead to chest pain or heart attacks.
Unlike us, dogs rarely get this type of heart problem. The most common heart diseases in dogs are mitral valve disease and dilated cardiomyopathy. Let’s discuss these conditions in more detail.
Common heart problems in dogs.
There are various causes of heart malfunction in dogs; the following, however, are the most commonly diagnosed heart diseases in dogs.
Mitral valve disease accounts for around 75% of canine heart disease cases and is especially common in smaller dogs.
Your dog’s heart works tirelessly to ensure a smooth blood flow in one direction – around the heart and throughout the body. And it’s the heart valves’ job to control this one-way traffic system. They open and close like doors with every heartbeat. In a healthy dog, this creates a ‘lub dub’ sound that can be heard through a stethoscope.
Heart valves are delicate and constantly moving, so it’s not uncommon for them to develop opening and closing issues as your dog ages. If the heart’s valves don’t close properly, blood flow becomes turbulent, creating a blowing, whooshing, or rasping sound that can be heard during a heartbeat. This is known as a murmur and is graded from 1 to 6, with 6 being the most severe.
While a heart murmur might sound scary, many dogs with one can still have a happy, active life. However, if it gets worse, it could lead to congestive heart failure (CHF). This is a condition where the heart struggles to keep up with its workload, leading to fluid build-up in the body.
Heart muscle disease
Another big heart concern in dogs is heart muscle disease or dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). It is the most common heart disease in large-breed dogs.
In this condition, the heart chambers become enlarged, and the heart walls begin to wear thin, making it harder for the heart to contract and pump blood.
A healthy heart has a very specific shape. When the heart is overworked, its shape expands and becomes more rounded. Because of this change in shape, the heart struggles to perform its tasks.
Just like with valve disease, DCM can also progress to congestive heart failure.
Congestive heart failure (CHF)
CHF often develops as a consequence of other underlying heart diseases – such as those we’ve just discussed. It’s more common in older dogs but can affect any age. Congestive heart failure is a condition where the heart struggles to pump blood effectively, leading to fluid build-up in the lungs, abdomen, or chest. The good news is that, because CHF is a common human problem too, researchers are constantly developing new drugs to treat it.
No matter the heart disease, it’s important to spot the signs of heart problems in your dog early on.
Signs of heart disease in dogs
There are several common signs and symptoms of heart disease in dogs that you should be aware of and watch out for. These include:
- Persistent coughing
- Difficulty breathing
- Behavioural changes
- Weight loss
- Low energy
- Poor appetite
These are only some of the signs of heart disease in dogs, so it’s important to remember that if you notice anything unusual about your dog’s appearance or behaviour, you should always contact your vet.
Diet for dogs with heart disease
When dogs have heart disease, their bodies change how they handle nutrients and process energy. Dogs with heart disease also experience increased oxidative stress and inflammation.
There is no single ‘best’ diet for all dogs with heart disease. When determining the most suitable diet, we need to consider several factors, such as symptoms, test results, and taste preferences.
For example, an overweight dog will need a diet lower in calories compared to one that’s losing weight or muscle mass. Blood tests can reveal conditions like low or high potassium levels, which would also influence dietary needs. Additionally, any other health issues that may be at play should also be taken into account.
In short, this means that just as every dog has its own personality, each one also has its own unique dietary needs – especially when it comes to heart disease.
Recent research has identified specific nutrients crucial for dogs with heart disease (read here), so let’s take a closer look at those.
Key nutrients for dogs with heart disease
Sodium (aka salt)
Salt has a bad reputation. So, when dog owners learn that their dog has heart disease, their first reaction is often to want to reduce the sodium content in the diet.
While it’s commonly recommended that dogs with heart disease avoid high dietary salt intake, it’s important to note that we don’t really know if low-sodium diets are as beneficial for dogs as they are for humans.
So you might wonder: What is this recommendation based on? And is the focus on sodium as important as we think?
Here’s the lowdown: To salt or not to salt!
Dogs with heart disease typically have a reduced ability to eliminate excess sodium in their urine. This can cause trouble because sodium naturally attracts and holds water. In return, this excess water can build up in the lungs and the abdomen, causing coughing, difficulty breathing and a swollen stomach.
Therefore, it makes sense to reduce sodium because reduced intake leads to less fluid retention. However, while sodium reduction is important, this may only apply to dry and canned foods because they tend to contain very high levels of sodium.
In the case of home-prepared diets, there is less cause for concern because fresh foods without added salt provide the least amount of sodium possible.
That said, some foods contain more sodium than others. For example, foods like ham, canned fish and cottage cheese, are usually high in salt. By reducing these and other salty foods in your dog’s diet, you can help lower their sodium intake.
Remember that sodium isn’t just in your dog’s daily diet. It can be found in many things you might give your dog, including treats, table scraps, dental chews, rawhides, and even dietary supplements.
It’s important to note that the aim is to control sodium intake (as per the disease stage), not completely eliminate it from your dog’s diet. Sodium is an essential mineral, and a diet too low in sodium can prompt the body to try and conserve it. This can cause an imbalance in your dog’s overall health and well-being.
You can learn more about the importance of salt in your dog’s diet by heading to this link:
Protein (amino acids)
Protein is vital in managing heart disease in dogs. This is because dogs with heart disease often lose muscle – a condition known as cachexia.
Proteins are made up of tiny units called amino acids. Think of a protein as a house and amino acids as the bricks. Your dog’s body rely on these amino acids to repair and build muscle. So, making sure your dog gets enough protein not only helps maintain muscle mass but also supports their overall health.
It’s not just about the amount of protein; the quality of the protein is important, too, and that depends on the amino acids present.
When a protein contains the essential amino acids in the right proportion required, we say that it has a high biological value (BV).
Ideal proteins for dogs with heart disease have a high biological value, are palatable and low in sodium.
This means that when considering the best protein sources for your dog’s heart health, it’s not enough to just look for a food with high protein content. The amino acid composition of the food is essential.
Examples of high biological value (BV) proteins include:
- Whole eggs
- Dairy products
Keep in mind that dogs with other health concerns, such as kidney disease, might need a low-protein diet. These dogs present a unique nutritional challenge, requiring a balance that addresses both conditions.
Imagine your dog’s body as a beautiful garden and free radicals as weeds. Without control, weeds will overrun the garden. This is where antioxidants come to the rescue. They are like gardeners who keep these weeds in check, ensuring the garden remains healthy and everything grows well.
In dogs with congestive heart failure, more weeds (free radicals) are growing, but there are fewer gardeners (antioxidants) to control them. This imbalance makes the garden stressed and will start to cause problems.
Adding antioxidants to your dog’s diet is like adding more gardeners to manage the weeds. This can help bring the body back into balance and lower the stress placed on the heart.
So, where do you find these antioxidants you might wonder.
Antioxidants can mainly be found in a variety of vegetables and fruits. The vibrant colours in fruits and vegetables often signal the presence of antioxidants, so the more colourful the food, the richer it is likely to be in antioxidants. For example:
- Green of broccoli, kale, green beans and spinach
- Red of cranberries, raspberries, pomegranates and ripe tomatoes
- Orange of carrots and sweet potatoes
- Yellow of mangos, squash and banana
- Blue-purple of blueberries, blackberries and red cabbage.
If you’d like more information, as well as tips and tricks on incorporating fruits and vegetables into your dog’s diet, I suggest you check out these two blogs:
Taurine is an amino acid vital for keeping your dog’s heart and blood vessels healthy. While most dogs aren’t typically deficient in taurine, certain breeds and individual dogs may need more.
The challenge is predicting which dogs might need more taurine and which don’t.
For this reason, I always proactively include taurine in my diet formulations and have done so for over 13 years. Heart disease is a serious condition, and taurine is an inexpensive supplement. Since the body gets rid of any Taurine it doesn’t need, there’s generally no concern about toxicity. Therefore, supplementing with taurine makes sense.
That said, it’s important not to go overboard. The taurine dose I generally recommend, based on body weight, is:
- <10 kg: 125 mg daily
- 10 – 24 kg: 250 mg daily
- 25 – 39 kg: 500 mg daily
- ≥40 kg: 1000 mg daily
Omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil)
Omega-3 fatty acids, particularly eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), offer a number of benefits for dogs with heart disease.
These fatty acids are known for their anti-inflammatory properties, which can help reduce the chronic inflammation often associated with heart conditions and potentially slow the progression of the disease.
Fish oil is generally preferred over flaxseed oil. This is because the omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil are already in the form of EPA and DHA, which are readily used by the dog’s body. In contrast, flaxseed oil contains alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Your dog’s body must convert ALA to EPA and DHA, a process it doesn’t do very efficiently.
It’s also important to keep in mind that while fish oil is beneficial, cod liver oil is not recommended for dogs with heart disease. This is because cod liver oil is high in vitamins A and D, which can be toxic in large doses.
You can learn more about fish oil for dogs by heading to this link:
Other helpful things you can do
One of the most important aspects of managing heart disease in dogs is ensuring your dog remains at a healthy weight.
Being either overweight or underweight is not good for your dog’s health in general, particularly when they have been diagnosed with heart disease.
The ideal body condition score (BCS) for healthy dogs falls between 4 – 5. For dogs with heart failure, it may be beneficial to aim for a body condition score of 5 – 6.
To learn more about how to assess your dog’s body condition score, follow this link:
Managing a picky eater with heart failure
Many dogs with heart failure become picky eaters or lose their appetite. Keeping them interested in food can be tricky, but preventing muscle loss is crucial.
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but hopefully, the following tips can help encourage your dog to eat:
If your dog’s appetite doesn’t improve, consider switching to a home-prepared diet, as most dogs prefer it over commercial food.
If so, It’s important not to make up your own diet or rely on generic recipes from the internet. Getting advice from a reputable professional is important. They can help ensure your dog’s specific health and nutritional requirements are met.
Tips for giving medication
Dogs with heart disease often require multiple medications. However, getting your dog to take their pills can be challenging.
Finding safe and effective methods to administer medication is vital, but it’s also important to avoid foods high in salt when doing so.
For detailed tips on administering medications and information on safe foods to use, please see my blog:
Key takeaways for managing heart disease in dogs
Managing heart disease in dogs may initially seem overwhelming. The good news is that, with a thorough understanding of your dog’s dietary needs, you can significantly enhance their quality of life and longevity.
Key nutritional goals include:
- Maintain optimal body condition.
- Enhance the diet by incorporating EPA and DHA, along with antioxidant-rich foods.
- Avoid nutritional excesses.
- Avoid nutritional deficiencies.
- Choose proteins with a high biological value.
- Add dietary supplements such as Taurine and fish body oil.
Remember, every dog is different, and management plans should be tailored to your dog’s needs and the specific type of heart disease they have. Always follow the guidance of your veterinarian and primary care team.
We have reached the end of the blog, and I hope the information has helped you better understand the necessary changes to manage your effectively. If you have any questions or need further help, don’t hesitate to get in touch. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Your feedback and suggestions are always welcome.