The Saint Bernard and Heart Disease
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The Saint Bernard and Heart Disease

Dogs
Health & Safety

The Saint Bernard has earned the reputation for being a gentle giant and a lovely character that’s native to the Swiss and Italian Alps. The breed became ultra-popular here in the UK all thanks to a wonderful dog named Schnorbitz owned by TV celebrity Bernie Walters, but over recent year their popularity has waned mainly due to the fact there are so many large breed dogs to choose from these days.

The breed is an ancient one and it's thought the Romans first took them up into the Alps. However, centuries later the St Bernard became well known the world over as a search and rescue mountain dog. Interestingly, they were bred by the monks of St Bernard Pass who, it is believed never trained them, but rather let young dogs learn the ropes from older St Bernards as they plied their trade.

As with many other giant breeds, the St Bernard does suffer from its fair share of health issues some of which they inherit from their parents and other conditions which they acquire during the course of their lives. One condition that's all too often diagnosed in the St Bernard is Dilated Cardiomyopathy, and it's a serious health issue that impacts a dog's heart. The condition causes the heart muscle in the left ventricle to become thinner than it should be which, as a result means the heart's left chamber gradually gets larger which causes all the problems.

The two main signs of there being a problem with a St Bernard's heart are a thinner wall and a much larger left ventricle chamber. Sadly, the condition is the cause of heart failure in the breed, but other large breeds can be affected too as although it's less commonly seen in smaller breeds.

Signs There May be a Problem

There are certain signs to watch out for when a dog starts developing a problem which is typically when they start coughing or sound like they are gagging. The reason for this is that fluid collects in their lungs as it leaks from the capillaries found in the heart into their airways. Another sign there could be something wrong is when a fit dog tires very quickly even after a very short walk.

The problem really starts to have a serious impact on a dog’s internal organs when the heart cannot provide enough oxygen in the blood. As a result, their cells and vital organs start to shut down. However, when the condition first takes hold, a dog's own body releases several hormones as a way to correct the problem which means the condition may go unnoticed for quite a while and this could be as long as several months. Although, a dog’s system tries to compensate and deal with the health issue, it does eventually have a negative impact on their heart with more fluid leaking out into their lungs. The result causes dogs to cough and gag.

Occasionally, the fluid may also build up in a dog's abdominal cavity as well as in their body tissue and when all these symptoms develop at the same time, a dog’s heart just cannot cope and they suffer congestive heart failure. Many St Bernard owners are left mystified when their dogs seem fine one day and then, suddenly the next they are extremely poorly. A vet would then diagnose their dogs to be suffering from dilated cardiomyopathy which has developed over a long period of time which as previously mentioned, can be months before it becomes so weak it gives out. Unfortunately, this can happen so quickly it typically takes a dog's owners completely by surprise. Signs there is something very wrong with your dog include the following:

  • Rapid and very heavy breathing
  • A dog's tongue turns blue
  • Excessive dribbling and drooling
  • Sudden collapse
  • How Vets Test a Dog’s Heart

There are a variety of tests vets can carry out to make sure a dog’s heart is working properly which includes the following:

  • The first test a vet would do is listen to your dog's heart using a stethoscope which allows them to detect any heart murmurs, where they are occurring within the heart and how frequent they are. They would also be able to hear whether the heart is beating normally or if there is any evidence of arrhythmia. A vet would also be able to listen to your dog's lungs allowing them to hear if any fluid is building up in them.
  • A vet could also carry out urine and blood tests which would tell them if your dog is suffering from any other health disorders that could impact their hearts. Once this has been established, they would be able to recommend a treatment.
  • Chest x-rays would also show up any lung abnormalities and would give a clear indication of whether the heart has changed shape and size. If the heart is found to be larger than normal, it would clearly show up on the x-rays.
  • Electrocardiograms show all electrical activity that occurs within the heart and this tells a vet how good a dog's heart rate is. An ECG also clearly establishes whether they are suffering from any sort of arrhythmia.
  • Lastly, a vet might recommend carrying out an ultrasound test which is the most accurate way of determining whether your dog's heart has changed shape or become larger than it should be. It also allows vets to see whether the heart walls are thinner than they should be. Vets can watch a dog’s heart beating in real time on a monitor which is the most accurate way of seeing if it’s functioning properly.

All these tests when combined together allows a vet to assess your dog's heart and whether or not it is functioning normally. However, it goes without saying that having a dog undergo all the tests can prove quite expensive which is why a vet would normally just recommend they carry out 2 or 3 of them to begin with and then take it from there.

Treatment and Living with a St Bernard with Dilated Cardiomyopathy

If you think your dog may be experiencing heart failure, you need to get them to the vet as a matter of urgency so they can be carefully monitored and given the right sort of medication as soon as possible. The first thing the vet would need is stabilise your dog’s condition which they would do by giving them diuretics as well as specific drugs to support your pet's heart and vital organs. If your dog responds well to the treatment, the prognosis although good in the short-term, is not that good in the long-term. If, however, they do not respond to the treatment they are initially given, the prognosis is never that good. With this said, there are lots of things that need to be factored in to the equation with the first being the initial results of any tests a vet carries out.

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