Dilated Cardiomyopathy in Golden Retrievers: What You Need to Know

The incidence of dilated cardiomyopathy in Golden Retrievers is on the rise.  Could diet be the problem?  Some veterinarians are beginning to think so.  Here’s what you need to know about the ongoing research.

What is Dilated Cardiomyopathy

Dilated cardiomyopathy  (DCM) is a condition caused by a weakening of the heart muscle that leads to poor contraction strength.  Ultimately, both the left and the right chambers of the heart become dilated, with thin walls.  The disease is most often progressive and fatal.

Some breeds have a genetic predisposition to DCM.  Affected breeds include the Doberman Pinscher, Boxer Dogs, American Cocker Spaniels, Newfoundlands, Irish Wolfhounds, Portuguese Water Dogs, mastiffs, and Great Danes.  Other breeds, including Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, Saint Bernards, Springer Spaniels, English Sheepdogs, Afghan hounds, Scottish Deerhounds, terriers, and English Cocker Spaniels also have a relatively high incidence of the disease.

But genetics isn’t the whole story in some cases.  In the 1990’s, veterinary cardiologists began to connect dietary taurine deficiency with DCM in some breeds.  They found that the disease was linked to diet in some Cocker Spaniels, Newfoundlands, and Golden Retrievers.

What is taurine?

Taurine is an amino acid.  Unlike many amino acids, it is not used by the body to build protein.  Instead, itaurine helps regulate the volume of cells, and  it is a component of bile salts. It is necessary for many body functions.  Many animal tissues contain high levels of taurine.  Dogs can make taurine, and it is not considered an essential amino acid for the canine diet.

Dr. Josh Stern, a veterinary cardiologist who studies DCM at the UC Davis College of Veterinary Medicine thinks that some dogs may have something in their genes that causes them to make less taurine.  In these dogs, diets that are lower in taurine could lead to disease. He is studying blood samples from dogs with and without DCM for clues.

What diets have been associated with Dilated Cardiomyopathy in Golden Retrievers?

Athough there are no published studies that link any diets to DCM, Dr. Stern and others have observed an association between some diets and the disease.  These diets include high fiber, lamb and rice meal, and very low protein diets (Morris Animal Foundation, Golden Retriever lifetime study).  Recently, investigators have also linked some grain-free diets, especially those high in legumes such as peas or soy,  to development of DCM.   They speculate that there may be something in legumes that hinders the absorption of taurine.

What should parents of Golden Retrievers do?

Regular veterinary visits and health examinations are essential for any dog.  Make sure you talk to your veterinarian about your dog’s diet.  Your vet may recommend a blood test for dietary taurine levels.  If your dog has signs of dilated cardiomyopathy, your vet may recommend a taurine supplement.  Continue to feed your dog a balanced diet with plenty of protein.

It is important to catch the disease early.  Taurine supplementation will not always be effective in treating the disease.  However, the earlier treatment begins, the better the chances for improvement.

Photo credit: Yvonne Kubo

The Problem with Poo: Get Rid of Winter Poo Build-Up

Spring is in the air, but what is that other thing I smell?

Animal poo accumulates in the winter

During the winter months, when the ground is frozen and it’s cold outside, people can get a little lazy about cleaning up after their pets.  After all, there aren’t any flies around, and the poo doesn’t really smell in the cold.  What’s the harm in leaving it on the ground a while longer?

The first, and most obvious, problem with winter poo build-up is that what freezes must thaw. All those piles of poo turn into poo land mines when the weather gets warmer.  And the smell comes back, too.  It’s unsanitary for everyone.

But there are other problems with letting animal feces sit in the environment, even in the winter.

Animal poo can contain infectious agents

You might thing that leaving poo around in the winter is not a problem because it’s too cold for infectious disease agents in fecal matter to live.  Think again.  In 2007, a team of researches studied 100 air samples from four midwestern cities.  They found that the bacterial community in the air in the winter most closely resembles that found in canine feces.  The samples were taken at 12 feet above the ground (Bowers, 2011).  Even in the winter, bacteria from fecal matter on the ground aerosolize.  While the scientists didn’t examine the health effects of these bacteria in their study, bacteria in the air have been associated with asthma and seasonal allergies in other research.

Dog feces can contain parasites, viruses, and bacteria that are infectious to humans.  But the diseases transmitted through dog feces are even more likely to be infectious to other dogs.  Last year, there was an outbreak of campylobacteriosis in puppies.  This disease is transmitted through feces. When the spring rains start to break down the fecal matter, disease agents are spread to a larger area.

Animal poo ends up in the water

Studies have shown that 20%-30% of the bacteria in urban watersheds can be traced to dog feces.  That’s not surprising:  pet dogs in the US produce around 11 million pounds of waste each year.  When it rains, pet waste that is lying on the ground gets washed into streams and rivers.  Pet waste in urban areas isn’t the only problem.  Poo that is sitting alongside forest trails and poo that is sitting in a back yard will both end up in a watershed somewhere.  When pet waste is left outside in the winter, there are few to no insects around to help it decompose.  So more of the poo is likely to enter the watershed.

A 2015 survey of 1000 people in North Caroline showed that only about 60% of dog owners pick up after their pet.  Fourty percent of owners aren’t picking up.  Don’t be like those people.  Now’s the time to get out there and clean up.

Bowers et al, Sources of bacteria in outdoor air across cities in the Midwestern United States, Applied and Environmental Microbiology, 2011

Is Your Dog a Canine Good Citizen?

Do you think your dog has what it takes to be a  Canine Good Citizen?

The American Kennel Club (AKC) certifies dogs as Canine Good Citizens (CGCs) through a training program and practical examination.  It’s not easy to be become a CGC!

The Test

The practical exam is non-competitive and consists of 10 parts. The examination items cited below are listed on the AKC CGC webpage.

  1. Accepting a friendly stranger.  Your dog will allow a stranger to approach and engage in friendly conversation with you.
  2. Sitting politely for petting:  Your dog allows a friendly stranger to pet her.
  3. Appearance and grooming: Your dog will permit someone other than you to check his front feet.
  4. Walking on a loose lead
  5. Walking through a crowd:  Your dog must demonstrate the ability to move comfortably on a leash through a crowded space with you.  You will move close to at least three different people, demonstrating that your dog is  under control at all times.
  6. Sit and down on command and stay in place.  You may choose whether your dog stays in “sit” or “down” position.
  7. Coming when called:  Your dog will come when called.  This will be a long-leash exercise and your dog will return from 10 feet away.
  8. Reaction to another dog:  Your dog will sit quietly when a person and another dog stop to engage you in friendly conversation.
  9. Reaction to distraction: The examiner will create two different distractions such as a dropped chair.  Your dog must remain calm and under control.
  10. Supervised separation:  This demonstrates that you are able to leave your dog with a caregiver.  You will give your dog’s leash to the evaluator and go out of sight for three minutes.  Your dog must not bark, whine, or show anything other than mild agitation or nervousness.

The Pledge

You will also be asked to take a pledge to commit to proper veterinary care, exercise, training, grooming, hygiene, and safety.  The aim of the pledge is to ensure that dog owners understand their dog’s needs and are dedicated to being good dog parents.

Training for the Test

Classes often start with basic obedience, and dogs progress to CDC qualification.  It’s easy to find an AKC training club through the AKC locator.  Even if there are no AKC clubs offering training classes in your area, there are probably local certified evaluators who can point you to a trainer.  We found several certified evaluators in the Kansas City area, and many trainers that offer classes.  You can find a list on our Resources page.

The Benefits

Why should you consider Canine Good Citizen training for your dog?  It’s a prerequisite for many therapy dog programs.  Certification is sometimes required to keep a dog in a rental property.  And getting your dog certified may make homeowner’s or renters insurance pet riders easier to get.  For owners of certain breeds, certification may be the difference between having and not having liability insurance for your dog.

And best of all, perhaps, when your dog is certified s/he gets to proudly claim the title CGC.

Kids at Dog Parks?

Dog parks are meant to be safe spaces for dogs to play and exercise off-leash.  They are less safe for children.  This includes indoor dog play spaces and anywhere else that dogs are running free, being dogs.  In fact, many dog parks have rules against children younger than a certain age, usually 8 -10 years.  Here are some reasons why cities and private dog park owners may ban young children.

Disease risk

It’s a singularly bad idea to let small children crawl or sit on the ground at a dog park.  Although we like to think that all dogs playing at a park are well vaccinated and properly dewormed, this is not always the case.  Dog urine and dog feces can transmit diseases and parasites to people.  Even after the waste is removed, the disease agents may still be present on the grass and in the soil.  And while the floors of indoor dog parks can be cleaned, disinfection is never perfect.

Bite risk

Not all dogs are familiar with children.  Many dogs have not been socialized to kids.  Children can trigger biting by reaching for an unfamiliar dog. And even when dogs are well-socialized to children, the presence of a running child can trigger chasing or hunting behavior.  Yelling and screaming may agitate some dogs and can lead to fear-aggressive behaviors, including snapping. Strollers, baby packs, and even babies in their parents’ arms may be threatening to some dogs.  Finally, children may inadvertently end up in the middle of a dog fight and be bitten by mistake.  This is especially true if kids bring food or dog treats into the park.

Risk of other injury

Anyone who has been to a dog park knows that they are frequently the scene of high-speed chases.  A dog running at full speed can collide with a person unintentionally.  For an adult, this usually means a fall and possible knee injury.  For a small child, being hit by a dog could lead to much more serious injury.  Pet parents know to watch out for running dogs, but small children most likely will not.

Overexuberant friendly dogs may injure children by jumping on them. Young children getting absolutely mobbed by friendly dogs at a dog park may look cute, but it’s not all tail wags and face licks.  Kids can be knocked over or scratched by these dogs.

General Safety Rules

Remember that dogs will be dogs, especially at the dog park.  Everyone is safer when humans respect the natural behaviors of dogs.  If you choose to bring children to the dog park, following some basic rules will help keep both children and dogs safe.

  • Know the rules at your dog park.  Don’t bring babies or toddlers if they aren’t allowed.
  • Toddlers and babies should be in arms if you choose to bring them.
  • Leave your strollers outside the park
  • All children should be supervised closely while in the dog park.
  • Never let any child play on the grass or dirt in a dog park.
  • Make sure your child knows that she must always ask permission  before touching an unfamiliar dog.
  • Children should be quiet while in the dog park and avoid sudden movements.
  • Keep your children close to you at all times.
  • Don’t bring people food or treats into the park.