New research out this week has revealed a major breakthrough in the management of the most common form of canine heart disease, which has the potential to extend the healthy lives of dogs throughout the world.
The global EPIC study, led by Professor Adrian Boswood of the Royal Veterinary College, has found that treatment with the drug pimobendan delays the onset of heart failure secondary to mitral valve disease (MVD), the most common form of heart disease in dogs.
The results, published in the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, found that treating dogs with enlarged hearts – an early warning sign of progressive heart disease – before they displayed any outward signs of the condition delayed the onset of heart failure by an average of 15 months, with dogs that received the drug also living significantly longer than those receiving a placebo.
Evidence was so conclusive, the study was terminated early following an interim analysis as it was deemed unethical to continue to withhold treatment from the placebo group.
Heart disease is one of the top five causes of death of dogs in the UK
Mitral valve disease accounts for the majority of cases and is caused by the deterioration of one of the heart valves and predominantly affects small breed dogs, including Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Dachshunds, Miniature Poodles and Terrier breeds. It is also a common condition in elderly humans.
Professor Boswood described why regular heart health checks are so important for dogs: "The vast majority of dogs with this heart disease will show no signs of the problem for quite some time, although they may have a heart murmur. This makes it crucial that all owners get their dog's heart checked regularly by their vet. This is especially true for small breed dogs over the age of 7 years old, as this is when the risk increases.
“The exception is cavalier King Charles spaniels, who are around 20 times more prone to this heart disease and can be affected much earlier in life, from around 5 years old, so need to be checked earlier and more regularly."
The EPIC (Evaluating Pimobendan in Cardiomegaly) study is the most robust of its kind in veterinary medicine, taking 7 years to complete and working to the highest standards of clinical research, rivalling that of human trials. There were 360 dogs involved in the study, across 11 countries and 4 continents, making the results relevant for dogs and owners across the world.
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A recent survey of dog owners found that more than half (53%) of small breed dog owners did not think their dog was at risk of developing heart disease, despite MVD being more prevalent in these breeds. However, more than one in three (34%) would want to do anything possible to prevent their pet from developing the signs of heart disease.
Dog owners join the campaign to raise awareness about heart disease in dogs
Broadcaster Gloria Hunniford owns two Cavalier King Charles spaniels; Roxy who is 4 and Gemma who is 8 supports the campaign and in the video below talks about Gemma being diagnosed with a heart condition earlier this year.
Jenny Jackson, owns 13-year-old cavalier King Charles spaniel, Alfie, who took part in the EPIC trial and to this date does not know if he was on the placebo or pimobendan.
Speaking of the day she found out Alfie had heart problems, Jenny says, “I found out that Alfie had preclinical MVD by chance, it was at a routine visit to the vets and they discovered Alfie had a grade 4 heart murmur. I was then referred to a cardiologist specialist at the RVC where it was discovered that Alfie had preclinical MVD."
Jenny continued, “I was prepared for Alfie to have heart disease as I had done my research about the breed when Alfie was a puppy, but I had not heard of the term MVD in dogs, only in humans and I was worried for Alfie’s health. As a loving dog owner, you want to know what the prognosis is for your dog, and you want to know the extent of the problem early on if possible. You love them all the same though no matter what their condition is, and I would try anything to help Alfie. Alfie has done well health-wise for a Cavvie for his age and we expected at some point to see some effects of heart disease.”
“Alfie has been a constant source of companionship since my husband died of cancer in 2009. Alfie has been there through it all, when I first started seeing my new partner Craig and then when my daughter Ellie was born.
“Since taking part in the trial, Alfie’s heart murmur has dropped to a grade 3 which is a significant milestone for his health. The results have been very positive as he became leaner and more agile; it is as if he had stopped ageing.
“Having Alfie be involved in such a ground-breaking study in canine cardiology is such an honour. I like to think Alfie has left a legacy in some way.”
Spotting the signs of heart disease in dogs
It can be relatively easy for a vet to detect suspected MVD, but an ultrasound scan and radiograph (x-ray) may be required to decide whether a dog will benefit from treatment.
Pet owners are urged to speak to their vet about the risk of heart disease in their dog, especially if they own a small breed dog over the age of 7 years or a cavalier King Charles spaniel over 5 years old.