QUESTION: Our Cavalier King Charles spaniel, Hector, who is only six years old, has been diagnosed with mitral valve disease and a grade 3 heart murmur. Our vet wants to start him on medication if he becomes symptomatic. Can you suggest any natural remedies to help his condition and prevent it from getting worse?
T.R., via email
ANSWER: Around 10 percent of dogs suffer from some form of heart disease, which can be present at birth (congenital) or, more commonly, acquired as an adult. Most of the time, it's due to mitral valve disease, when the mitral valve of the heart—which normally acts as a seal between the heart's left atrium (the filling chamber) and left ventricle (the pumping chamber)—degenerates, preventing it from shutting fully.
This means that blood leaks back into the atrium with every heartbeat, a process known as regurgitation that produces a characteristic change in the rhythm of the heart beat called a heart murmur. Typically, regurgitation becomes more severe over time and can eventually lead to congestive heart failure.
Small-breed dogs such as the Cavalier King Charles spaniel, cocker spaniel and Chihuahua are prone to mitral valve disease. Larger dogs, on the other hand, like Great Danes, Dobermans, boxers and golden retrievers, are more likely to suffer from dilated cardiomyopathy, when the left ventricle becomes weak and struggles to pump blood, resulting in it becoming dilated and stretched.
In cats, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy—abnormal thickening of the heart—is the most common acquired heart disease and can cause sudden death. Any cat can suffer from it, but it is more common in middle-aged to older male castrated cats.
Mitral valve malfunction may cause no symptoms besides a murmur to begin with, but over time signs of heart failure can develop. These include coughing, labored breathing or panting excessively, reluctance to exercise and sometimes abdominal enlargement.
Some dogs may also go off their food and lose weight if that loss of appetite goes undetected. They also might become lethargic and tire easily.
Cats with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy have similar signs. Although they tend not to cough, their breathing is worse. Both dogs and cats with heart disease may have sudden spasms and collapse, and then recover completely in minutes. These episodes are known as syncope.
To diagnose heart disease, your vet will take into account several factors, like your pet's species, age, sex and breed. After obtaining a thorough history of the symptoms, they'll check your pet's heart with a stethoscope to listen for murmurs, heart sounds, heart rate, etc. Your pet's respiratory rate is an important clue (see page 55), and the color of the tongue and gums will also provide valuable information.
After a full clinical examination, your pet may need blood tests, x-rays and/or echocardiography to get a concrete diagnosis. Other causes of cough, like bronchitis, kennel cough and lung problems, also need to be ruled out.
Dogs like Hector who have mitral valve disease but no symptoms usually don't require treatment. But if heart failure develops, medication such as diuretics (water tablets), ACE inhibitors and antiarrhythmic drugs may be necessary. In critical cases, pets will need to be admitted for cage rest and oxygenation.
In cats with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, calcium channel blockers are the first choice of treatment.
The main aim of drug treatment is to prolong and improve the quality of your pet's life by alleviating the clinical symptoms of heart disease.
Conventional medicines can be lifesavers when it comes to heart problems; however, they are not without side-effects and can work much more effectively when combined with natural therapies and lifestyle changes. The following natural remedies may also help prevent heart failure from developing in the first place, and therefore eliminate the need for medication.
Rest and regulated exercise are key to helping your pet's heart cope with heart disease. Excessive exercise is dangerous and must be avoided. Speak to your vet about the best types of exercise for Hector.
A top-quality diet
Obesity is a well-known cause of increased cardiac workload, so feeding your dog the right food and in the right amount to enable weight loss is vital. It's also important to feed Hector a low-sodium diet. High-salt diets can worsen fluid retention, which is a problem in heart failure.
Home-made natural diets with plenty of vegetables are a good alternative to commercial pet food. Many processed pet foods have high salt and fat contents, so they're best avoided—as are salty and fatty treats. Cats also need taurine for a healthy heart, which is naturally available in fresh meat.
See my book You Can Heal Your Pet for a guide on the healthiest diet for your pet.
Garlic is a fantastic heart-supporting herb; it prevents blood clots from clogging the arteries. Try feeding Hector some raw chopped garlic daily, or you can make him some garlic biscuits (see right). Cats can tolerate tiny amounts of garlic—less than one-eighth of a teaspoon a day—but they prefer chives.
Suggested dosage: Small dogs: ¼ to ½ tsp/day chopped garlic; large dogs: 2 tsp/day
Hawthorn berries (Crataegus laevigata) can help strengthen heart muscle fibers, so consider supplementing Hector's diet with glycerin-based hawthorn berry extracts. Herbs for Paws makes a 100 percent natural Cardiac & Heart Support supplement for dogs, while Animal Essentials offers a Heart Health herbal formula, containing hawthorn, garlic and ginkgo, for both dogs and cats. Both supplements are available on Amazon.
Suggested dosage: Follow the label instructions
Coenzyme Q10. This protective enzyme has been used to support the heart in both humans and animals.
Suggested dosage: Small dogs and cats (under 15 lb or 7 kg): 10 mg/day; medium dogs (15-50 lb or 7-22 kg): 20 mg/day; large dogs (over 50 lb or 23 kg): 30 mg/day
Fish oil supplements containing omega-3 fatty acids can slow the progression of heart disease. Alternatively, feed your dog fresh or canned mackerel, salmon or sardines.
Suggested dosage: Select a good-quality supplement and follow the label instructions
Vitamins C and E are also useful heart-healthy supplements.
Suggested dosage: Small dogs and cats, 500 mg vitamin C (in divided doses) , 50 IU/day vitamin E; medium dogs, 1 g vitamin C, 100-200 IU vitamin E; large dogs, 2 g vitamin C, 400 IU vitamin E
Stimulating acupoint HT 7, located just above the wrist on the outside of the forelimbs, and points BL 13-15, on either side of the spine between the shoulder blades, can help with heart problems. Try stimulating one or two points per day for a maximum of 30 seconds. See You Can Heal Your Pet for detailed instructions on how to give acupressure to your pet.
Apis 30C is a mild diuretic remedy that can help the kidneys when there is abdominal bloating from fluid retention due to heart disease.
Suggested dosage: Small dogs and cats need one pellet; bigger ones need two. Give twice a day until the bloating diminishes or for 1 week
Crataegus 3C is also a good heart tonic.
Suggested dosage: 1-4 times daily in chronic heart disease
These essences help to pacify the emotional stress of heart disease and aid in relaxing your pet. Combine four drops each of the essences Star of Bethlehem and Impatiens in a 1 oz (30 mL) brown bottle filled with spring water. Add 10 drops to your pet's drinking water twice a day or give four drops by mouth four times daily.
Relax your pet by giving him a gentle massage or by using small circular movements called T-touch. Doing this once or twice daily will help him cope better.
Check your pet
The table below shows the parameters for normal heart and respiratory rates for dogs and cats. By counting the number of times your pet's chest or abdomen rises up and down in one minute, you can count their respiratory rate. By sliding your hand along the chest between the front legs, toward center-left, you can feel your pet's heart and count their heart rate.
Garlic canine biscuits
1 ¼ cup (115 g) oatmeal
¾ cup (100 g) self-rising flour
2 cloves garlic, ground to a paste
1 Tbsp honey
1) Preheat oven to 375°F/190°C. Grease an 8 × 11 inch (20 × 29 cm) baking sheet.
2) Mix together all the ingredients in a large bowl to form a soft dough. Spread the mixture about a half-inch (1 cm) deep on the baking tray. Bake for 25-30 minutes until just firm.
3) Remove from the oven and let cool. Cut into bite-sized squares.
4) Keep in an airtight, labeled container in the fridge for up to five days or freeze for up to one month.
Here's an alternative recipe for cats, using chives instead of garlic:
Chive feline treats
1 small bunch chives, finely chopped
1 cup (120 g) self-rising flour
1 free-range egg
4 oz (120 g) can sardines in sunflower oil (use all the oil from the can)
1 Preheat oven to 375°F/190°C. Grease an 8 × 11 inch (20 × 29 cm) baking sheet.
2 Mix together all the ingredients in a large bowl to form a soft dough. Spread mixture about a half-inch (1 cm) deep on the baking tray. Bake for 25-30 minutes until just firm.
3 Remove from the oven and let cool. Cut into bite-sized squares.
4 Store in an airtight container as described above.
Rohini Sathish, DVM, MSC, MRCVS, MHAO, MCIVT
Dr Sathish is an award-winning holistic vet with 22 years of experience. After training in acupuncture, acupressure, energy healing, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), animal communication and herbal medicine, she now actively integrates conventional veterinary treatments with complementary therapies and is co-author of You Can Heal Your Pet (Hay House UK, 2015). You can contact Dr Sathish at her website: www.rohinisholisticvetcare.com