Nutritional Considerations for Cardiovascular Health

What is heart disease?

Cardiovascular disease, or heart disease, is any abnormality of the heart. Like “liver disease”, it’s an umbrella term that doesn’t mean one specific issue but instead could mean any number of conditions. Heart disease can be congenital or acquired and almost always act progressively (an exception is dilated cardiomyopathy caused by a taurine deficiency, which can be rectified by changing food and increasing taurine). Having heart disease is not the same as heart failure; heart failure is the end stage of certain types of these conditions but not every type of heart disease will lead to heart failure.

Certain breeds are genetically predisposed to various types of heart conditions. Some of the predisposed breeds include Cavalier King Charles spaniels, Golden retrievers, Dobermans, Boxers, Labrador retrievers, Great Danes, Cocker spaniels, and Chihuahuas.

Senior dogs are more at risk for developing heart disease- approximately 75% of all senior dogs will develop heart disease.

Symptoms of cardiovascular disease can include coughing, gagging, exercise intolerance, weight loss, vomiting, shortness of breath, fainting, pale gums, and abdominal distention. 

Imaging and other types of diagnostics can be done at your veterinarian or through a cardiologist; generally, it’s recommended to utilize a specialist (cardiologist) once heart disease is suspected or identified. For predisposed breeds, or if you have a mix breed that you believe is mixed with a predisposed breed, it’s not a bad idea to start with yearly chest films once that dog reaches senior status.

heart disease & nutrition

Although nutrition cannot reverse heart disease, we can use nutrition to support our dog’s body and cardiovascular system to give them the best chance at a good quality of life and to increase longevity. For predisposed breeds, including cardioprotective nutraceuticals from a young age may reduce their likelihood of developing heart disease.

Although it’s easy to forget, it’s important to realize that excess weight should also be addressed if present. Obesity in dogs is associated with negative effects on cardiac output and function, blood pressure, and heart rate. 

Although not discussed here, there are a variety of herbs that are considered very beneficial. If you would like a recommendation for a Canine Herbalist, please send me an email! 

L-carnitine is a vitamin-like compound that is required for myocardial energy production. It’s necessary for fatty acid metabolism which makes it important for heart tissue because the heart receives the majority of its energy from fatty acid oxidation. Healthy dogs can synthesize their own L-carnitine, but dogs with heart disease have lower circulating levels and may benefit from its inclusion in the diet.

Omega-3 fatty acids in therapeutic doses are used to modify the body’s inflammatory response and have been shown to be anti-arrhythmic. Please note that plant-based omega-3 fatty acids and cod liver oil should not be used when doing omega-3 fatty acids at therapeutic doses. Marine sources like fish oil, calamari oil, or krill oil should be used; fish oil is preferable providing the dog can tolerate fish. 

Vitamin K2’s role in cardiovascular health is its involvement in the prevention of vascular/aortic calcification. While healthy dogs can synthesize their own vitamin K, it is notoriously low in the majority of raw diets because vitamin K1 is found mainly in dark green leafy vegetables and vitamin K2 is found in the most concentrated amounts in foodstuffs that we don’t usually feed our dogs (fermented foods). Vitamin K2 and D work synergistically and so supplements that naturally contain both such as fermented butter oil or emu oil are best.

Taurine is an amino acid found in very high concentrations in the myocardium of the heart and thus is very important for heart function! While healthy dogs can synthesize their own, dogs with heart disease have lower concentrations of taurine in their body and thus can benefit from additional taurine added into their bodies. Please note that in cases where therapeutic doses are needed, it’s not advised to rely purely on raw meat and fish for taurine needs. Note: studies have shown that even otherwise healthy, large breed dogs (> 50 pounds) have lower circulating taurine levels. Dogs >50 pounds may benefit from conservative doses even early in life, especially for breeds known to be predisposed to heart conditions. Conservative dosing for taurine is 12.5mg per pound of body weight, per day. I like to utilize the brand NOW tauine powder or NOW taurine capsules. 

Dogs with heart disease experience an increased level of oxidative stress because of an altered cardiac function and will have reduced concentrations in their bodies of antioxidants. Oxidative stress causes cellular damage and inflammatory responses within the body. Antioxidants may include vitamins E and C, beta-carotene, etc. 

Coenzyme Q10 is synthesized within the body and is important for energy production within cells and is a key antioxidant. It’s especially important for organs like the heart that have high energy demands. Studies have shown that it improves heart function alongside reducing oxidative damage. As dogs age, their bodies naturally produce less coQ10.

Cardiovascular disease causes the body to have a compromised ability to excrete sodium because there is a decrease in cardiac output. Sodium should be reduced to the dog’s recommended allowance once heart disease is present, and restricted (below recommended allowance) once heart disease is advanced.

Due to various medications utilized to treat cardiovascular disease, the body is at risk for depletion of magnesium, potassium, and B vitamins. Adequate amounts of potassium and magnesium should always be provided, and B vitamins should be considered if the dog is taking a diuretic (as this increases urinary output and thus loss of water-soluble B vitamins).   

Feeding a fresh food diet whenever possible is one of the best choices you can make for your dog. Both raw and cooked diets are highly beneficial; naturally-present taurine is highest in raw shellfish (mussels, clams, scallops), squid, and octopus and is also found in appreciable amounts in the dark meat of turkey.