Feeding Dogs with Congestive Heart Failure

Published: July 18, 2014
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I recently came across an estimate for the prevalence of heart disease in older dogs that shocked me — thirty percent. My first reaction was “that can’t be right,” but the more I thought about all those elderly, small dogs with mitral valve dysplasia and large breeds with dilated cardiomyopathy, the more I came to think that 30% might not be all that far off the mark.

Given enough time, many dogs with heart disease will go on to develop congestive heart failure (CHF), an end-stage condition characterized by a heart that is unable pump blood efficiently enough to meet the needs of the body. Blood essentially “backs up” within the circulatory system causing fluid to leak out of the vessels and a whole host of other problems.

The details of treatment for CHF depend on the primary type of heart disease involved and how advanced the condition is, but diet is always important. Dogs with CHF tend to lose weight. Specifically, they can undergo a process called cardiac cachexia during which both muscle and fat stores are depleted. Cardiac cachexia usually has several causes, including poor appetite, poor absorption of food, increased energy output, and the effects of the medications that many dogs with CHF take.

Therefore, the first thing I look for in a diet designed to help a dog with congestive heart failure is yumminess (officially called palatability). If a dog doesn’t relish eating the food, he or she is unlikely to eat enough to stave of cardiac cachexia. Next, I look for digestible, high quality ingredients. Since nutrient absorption can be a problem, we want to make sure that what is present in the food has a decent chance of making it through the intestinal wall.

Homemade diets are extremely palatable and allow owners to have complete control over what ingredients they contain. For owners who are willing to cook for their dogs, I strongly encourage a consultation with a veterinary nutritionist who can put together a recipe specifically designed to meet the special nutritional needs of dogs with cardiac cachexia. In general, diets for dogs with CHF have:

  • restricted sodium levels to limit fluid retention
  • added taurine and L-carnitine, amino acids that in some cases may help support heart function
  • added B-vitamins and magnesium to counteract the losses that typically occur when dogs are treated for CHF
  • potassium levels may be higher or lower than normal, depending on a dog’s particular needs

If a homemade food is not a reasonable option, I then recommend a high quality canned food that has at least some of the attributes mentioned above. Prescription diets are available that can work well, so long as a dog will eat them (they tend to be rather bland). A dog’s veterinarian can make a specific recommendation based on the particulars of the case. I prefer canned varieties since they often incorporate higher quality ingredients and taste better in comparison to dry, but if a dog prefers dry to canned (or homemade), I won’t argue.

After all, it’s almost always better for dogs with congestive heart failure to eat more of a not-exactly-perfect food than less of precisely-what-the-doctor-ordered.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: dezi / Shutterstock