By Dr. Anna Cherry
A congestive heart failure diet for dogs may be indicated for dogs suffering from this form of heart disease. Heart disease is common in dogs and can be caused by many different things, including, infection, inflammation, tumors, birth defects, genes (e.g. Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Dobermans), diet and can also be secondary to other diseases (e.g. hyperthyroidism). Dogs that are affected by heart disease may not be able to pump blood around the body as effectively as those with a healthy heart. Consequently, this can lead to compromised delivery of nutrients and oxygen (that are carried in the blood) to the rest of the body.
Congestive Heart Failure in Dogs
To help overcome the compromised delivery of nutrients and oxygen, the body tries to compensate by releasing hormones (chemical messengers) and triggering their nervous system. This results in an increase in the heart rate and the heart’s ability to contract (i.e. push blood around the body).
In addition, to help maintain blood pressure, the vessels in the body also become narrower (vasoconstriction) and the body starts to retain salt and water to further boost the circulation.The above adaptations do not offer a long-term solution, and over time, the heart will not be able to sustain the extra workload and will go into failure.
At this stage, the heart will no longer be able to pump adequately and the flow of blood around the body slows down. This causes fluid to accumulate in the tissues and cavities of the body, including the abdomen (called ascites), chest (termed pulmonary effusion), lungs (termed pulmonary oedema) and cause swelling of dog's limbs (termed oedema). When this happens, the patient is considered to be in congestive heart failure (CHF).
If your dog is in CHF, you may notice some of the following changes: coughing, collapsing episodes, lethargy, breathlessness, increased panting, a reluctance to exercise and loss of appetite. Physically they may lose or gain weight (depending on what stage of CHF that they are in), lose muscle mass; develop a swollen belly; experience swelling to their limbs and have paler gums.
Congestive Heart Failure Diet for Dogs
Diet can play a key role in the management of congestive heart failure, so, it’s important to get your dog started on the right diet as soon as possible.
However, because each dog with congestive heart failure will have slightly different nutritional needs, there is no one diet that will suit all. Therefore, it’s important that each dog is carefully evaluated to determine their individual nutritional needs.
This should include a full physical assessment of their body condition, a weight check and palpation over the body for any signs of muscle loss. Bloods may also be taken to check their organ function and their mineral status (e.g. potassium and magnesium levels).
Also, if they have any other concurrent health conditions, these will need to be factored into their diet. For example, kidney disease is common in patients with heart disease and if severe, the protein content may need to be lowered to accommodate this.
Keeping Calories in Mind
If your dog has congestive heart failure, it is important to make sure that they are fed a diet that will contain the right amount of energy to help keep them at a healthy weight.
For example, it’s not unusual for dogs in the earlier stages to be overweight. This is because dogs with congestive heart failure are not able to exercise as much, making them predisposed to weight gain.
For these individuals, it is vital that they are fed on a calorie-restricted diet to help them lose any excess weight, which may be putting the extra strain on their heart.
Conversely, In the later stages of congestive heart failure, dogs often lose their appetite (due to lethargy and from the side effects of their heart medication) and are reluctant to eat. Due to the extra energy required in congestive heart failure to pump blood around the body, this rapidly results in weight loss and a decline in body condition.
Dogs that are in this stage, will no longer be able to get enough energy from their food alone to meet their needs. Under these conditions, the body is forced to start breaking down tissues such as their muscle to provide extra energy - this is referred to as ‘cardiac cachexia’.
For underweight patients, a maintenance diet will not be adequate and it is essential that they are fed on a diet that is energy-dense and contains high levels of fat. This will help to make the food more palatable and will encourage dogs with reduced appetites to eat. They should also be fed on a food that contains moderate levels of protein to help counteract the cachexia (unless they have severe kidney disease).
Risks of Sodium
If a healthy dog eats food or treats that contain high levels of sodium (salt) their bodies will be able to regulate this by getting rid of the excess. However, dogs that have congestive heart failure have a reduced ability to regulate salt and instead will retain any extra in their bodies.
This will exacerbate their heart condition by increasing their blood pressure and work-load on the heart. If sustained, their quality of life and longevity will also be reduced. Therefore, foods and treats that contain high levels of sodium should be avoided if your dog has congestive heart failure.
We used to recommend feeding a salt-restricted diet to all patients with congestive heart failure. However, recent research has revealed that restricting salt too early can accelerate the progression of congestive heart failure. Therefore, it should only be restricted during the later stages of congestive heart failure.
If your dog is on a salt restricted diet, it is also important that any treats (or table scraps) that they are given are low in sodium (even those used to administer their medication!). Good options include, home cooked meat, banana and peanut butter (no salt and no xylitol formulations only).
Other Dietary Needs
A congestive heart failure diet for dogs must keep in mind several dietary needs specific to the dogs suffering from this condition. Consult with a veterinary nutritionist for specific guidelines and advice.
Water-soluble vitamins such as vitamin B may be lost in the urine due to the use of heart medications such as diuretics, which increase the passage of urine - these may need to be supplemented in some patients.
Potassium & Magnesium
Levels of these minerals may be too low or too high - your veterinarian will be able to perform a blood test to check their status and can supplement where necessary.
Supplementing their diet with Omega 3 is believed to help improve their appetite and reduce any underlying inflammation.
This should be freely available at all times. Consideration in the later stage of congestive heart failure should be given to using distilled water over tap water, as this will contain less sodium and chloride.
There are a few samples of congestive heart failure diet for dogs specifically tailored for heart disease. Veterinary diets include Royal Canin’s ‘Cardiac’ and Hill’s h/d. Your veterinarian will be able to advise you on the most appropriate diet for your dog.
About the Author
Dr. Anna Cherry BSc Hons BVSc MRCVS
Since graduating from Liverpool Vet School in 2006, Anna has worked in small animal practice and has setup and run her own mobile veterinary service.
She has a special interest in canine nutrition and internal medicine and recently completed a certificate in Canine and Feline nutrition.
Away from the world of veterinary, she loves spending time with her Golden Retriever Chester, who likes to keep her one toes with all his various ailments.