DCM in Great Danes: What you need to know

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I'm a dog training, nutrition, and science fanatic that believes in ethical breeders, responsible rescue practices, veterinarians, and modern balanced LIMA dog training. Love the dog in front of you.

If you are the owner of a Great Dane, then you need to be aware of DCM in Great Danes. Dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) is a common and serious heart condition that affects this breed. It often results in sudden death.

In this blog post, we will discuss what DCM is (including primary and secondary DCM), the symptoms to watch for, and information about how heart problems are treated in dogs.

We will also provide information on how you can help keep your Great Dane healthy and prevent DCM from developing!

DCM in Great Danes information

What is DCM in Great Danes?

DCM, aka Dilated Cardiomyopathy, is a heart condition that is characterized by an enlarged heart. This enlargement makes it difficult for the heart to pump blood effectively, and as a result, the dog’s body does not get enough oxygen.

Sudden cardiac death is a common and devastating complication of DCM.

There are two types of DCM: primary and secondary.

Primary DCM is thought to be genetic.

Secondary DCM is thought to be caused by unbalanced nutrition, and may also be the result of an infection or other underlying health condition.

We will dig further into both forms of dilated cardiomyopathy DCM in dogs, as well as prevention and treatment protocols below!

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What are the symptoms of DCM in dogs?

The unfortunate reality is that many dogs who have DCM, especially secondary DCM (more below) present with little to no symptoms at all until it’s too late.

Sudden death is a common complication associated with this disease, and will often take the lives of young dogs who appear otherwise healthy. Sudden congestive heart failure is devastating.

In dogs that do present with symptoms associated with DCM, exercise intolerance is often one of the first signs.

Many people mistake this lowered energy with aging or laziness.

Exercise intolerance means that your dog will tire easily during activities that he used to be able to do with ease.

You may also notice that your dog coughs, has difficulty breathing, or has a lower tolerance for heat.

Other DCM symptoms include:

  • Loss of appetite, including anorexia
  • Weight Loss
  • Abdominal Swelling
  • Weakness & exhaustion
  • Poor circulation and capillary refill, including pale gums
  • Blue tongue
  • Pulse deficits
  • Lethargy
  • Fainting or collapsing

These signs can be easy to overlook because they are often gradual and not specific to heart disease.

However, if you notice any of these changes in your dog it’s important to contact your veterinarian right away.

A basic ‘vet check’ or wellness check does NOT rule out serious heart conditions; echocardiograms are one of the only ways to verify changes to the cardiac muscle that point to canine cardiomyopathy.

While all symptoms warrant a vet check and likely a referral to cardiology, this is especially true if your dog has the following additional risk factors:

  • you are feeding a grain-free, home-cooked, or boutique food diet (sometimes referred to as a suspect “BEG” diet)
  • your dog is male (male Danes are more prone to DCM)
  • your Great Dane came from a breeder who did not fully OFA health test both parents for cardiac disorders (echocardiogram) prior to breeding
  • your dog’s pedigree indicates a genetic predisposition
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IS GRAIN-FREE FOOD DANGEROUS?

Read more here ↗

How long can a Great Dane live with DCM?

Because Canine Dilated Cardiomyopathy symptoms are often overlooked, many affected dogs may be receiving treatment too late.

It’s important to remember that there is no cure for primary (genetic) DCM and it is a progressive disease. This means that even with treatment, the condition may continue to worsen over time.

Dogs with genetic DCM have a guarded prognosis and often do not live more than a year or two after diagnosis, even with treatment.

Secondary DCM, however, is treatable and may even be reversible if the underlying cause can be identified and corrected.

For example, if your dog has secondary DCM caused by an infection, successfully treating the infection and the underlying cause of it will often improve heart function.

If you are feeding a boutique food diet and your dog is diagnosed with DCM, switching to a different, higher-quality food from a heavily researched brand (such as Purina or Royal Canin) is the cure.

This simple change has reversed the disease in many affected dogs that developed N-DCM after eating boutique dog foods.

It’s important to work closely with your veterinarian to create the best treatment plan, based on the underlying reasons for it.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to treating canine Dilated Cardiomyopathy, and depending on the cause and severity, the course of treatment will often need to be adjusted as the disease progresses.

What dogs are prone to DCM?

Some dogs are more prone to this condition than others, however, all dogs are at risk (especially when it comes to secondary nutritional DCM).

Dog breeds that are especially prone to canine dilated cardiomyopathy include:

  • Great Danes
  • Boxers
  • Newfoundlands
  • Doberman Pinschers
  • Cocker Spaniels
  • Irish Wolfhounds

Of these breeds, Great Danes have some of the highest rate of DCM.

Because Great Danes already have a major genetic component to consider, it’s even more important to be educated about the role that nutrition might play in dramatically increasing our dog’s risk of developing this disease.

Does Grain-Free Food Cause DCM in Dogs?

What are the Best Foods to Feed a Great Dane?

How do I Keep my Great Dane Healthy?

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Diagnosing Dilated Cardiomyopathy DCM

As before, many affected dogs are asymptomatic or have mild symptoms that are easily mistaken for other more mild health issues.

An abnormal heart rhythm or breathing pattern will often be among the first (easily missed) clinical signs that a dog is in the early stages of dilated cardiomyopathy.

Affected individuals may also tire easily during exercise, may have a blue tongue (a possible sign of low oxygen supply resulting from poor heart function), or may cough after physical activity.

As the heart disease progresses, dogs may experience an increased heart rate, irregular heart rhythm, fluid retention (often manifested as weight gain with no change in diet), weight loss, and fainting episodes.

In its final stages, DCM can cause congestive heart failure, which leads to sudden death.

An ultrasound examination of the heart contractions, heart muscle, and blood flowing through the heart can provide a veterinary cardiologist with important clues about the heart disease your dog is facing.

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Primary Dilated Cardiomyopathy (Genetic)

Severe congestive heart failure is an early killer of young dogs who have a genetic predisposition to DCM.

Like bloat, dilated cardiomyopathy heart disease is directly related to the shorter overall life expectancy of Great Danes.

Every dog that dies suddenly from this devastating disease lowers the average as a whole.

OFA Cardiac Health Testing

OFA (the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals) cardiac health testing is important for all dogs, but it’s especially important for breeds, such as Danes and Doberman Pinschers that are extremely prone to primary DCM.

Ethical breeders will have an echocardiogram performed on each parent dog prior to breeding. This necessary health test can rule out changes to the heart muscle that indicate a possible genetic predisposition to the disease.

They will also do a thorough pedigree analysis to look for genetic factors related to family history.

If a pedigree analysis suggested that the puppies may be predisposed to inheriting canine idiopathic dilated cardiomyopathy, ethical breeders will not breed those dogs.

All of this should be done prior to breeding. Unfortunately, many ‘friendly’ breeders with cute, clean, healthy-looking puppies skip this step. By the time you fall in love with those adorable puppy feet and eyes, it’s too late.

The genetics have been passed on and your puppy may be one of the not-so-lucky ones.

It is important that we hold Great Dane breeders to a high standard. Make it socially unacceptable to breed dogs without full health testing. Do not buy dogs from breeders who are not proving their dogs and fully-health testing the parents before breeding.

Verify that echocardiograms were done by your breeder by searching the OFA database. Your breeder should have the parent listed, as well as the tests that were performed in addition to information about the results.

www.ofa.org

If your breeder has skipped this test or not registered it with the OFA, you’ve found a backyard breeder.

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Responsible Dog Breeding

Because Great Danes are a breed prone to a number of devastating health issues, including dilated cardiomyopathy, it’s even more important to be sure that you are working with a responsible breeder.

A responsible breeder will:

Thoroughly health test all breeding stock: heart, hips, eyes, and thyroid results should be available for you to view at www.ofa.org

Have detailed knowledge of the Great Dane breed and how their dogs are excellent examples of the Great Dane breed standard.

Be able to answer any questions you have about Great Danes and Great Dane puppies.

Be invested in the health and well-being of the puppies, and are willing to support them for life.

Choosing responsible breeders means that we are choosing to improve the health of the Great Dane breed as a whole.

When we buy our puppies from breeders who cut corners, we are not only risking the health of our own dogs, but we are also perpetuating the cycle of poor breeding practices that produce sickly dogs and the seemingly endless stream of dogs filling up our rescues.

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GREAT DANE ETHICAL BREEDER SEARCH

Find a U.S. Breeder Near You ↗

Secondary Dilated Cardiomyopathy (Nutritional)

Nutritional canine Dilated Cardiomyopathy is also a preventable disease.

Clinical findings show that improperly formulated boutique dog foods are a suspicious culprit when it comes to N-DCM. While studies are ongoing, the evidence being collected every day is alarming.

300-400 new boutique dog foods hit the market every year in the U.S. It stands to reason that not all of them are created equal.

The FDA is currently investigating a possible link between boutique, home-cooked, or grain-free diets (aka ‘BEG’ diets) and DCM. They are collecting data and encouraging pet owners and veterinarians to report cases of DCM in dogs that are eating suspect diets.

Suspect diets include:

Boutique foods of all kinds (including those with or without grain)

Grain-free foods, especially those with a lot of peas and legumes

Home-cooked diets

Many young giant breed dogs who appear otherwise healthy, have excellent veterinary wellness checks, and show no outward clinical signs will suddenly pass away while playing or in their sleep.

Because these instances are sudden and extremely emotional for dog owners, post-mortem testing by a board-certified Veterinary Pathologist is rarely completed.

It is believed that nutritional DCM is presenting at rates much higher than currently documented, especially as the numbers continue to increase alongside the dramatic rise in the popularity of boutique dog foods.

It is important to note that many dogs are symptom free until they die suddenly. Many others however, DO have symptoms. Every case is different.

Boutique dog foods still collectively make up the smallest market share of overall sales (compared to the Big 5: Purina, Royal Canin, Hill’s, Eukanuba, Iam’s) yet are responsible for 100% of the cases of n-DCM seen in dogs.

I believe that boutique diets are killing our beloved giant breed dogs and yes, you should be alarmed. As a matter of fact, I have personal experience with this (and will share my story below).

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Boutique Dog Foods and DCM in Dogs

Boutique brands fail to meet certain ethical criteria for the production of dog foods.

  • They rarely if ever employ full-time, on-staff, board-certified Veterinary Nutritionists. This means that the food is often put together by people who have little to no appropriate credentials to do so.
  • Feeding trials and ongoing testing of the formula used are minimal, if used at all. Boutique foods aren’t subjected to the same research and controls; they only meet nutritional minimums on paper.
  • Boutique foods often use 3rd party co-packing facilities. This means that they have less oversight of quality control, consistency, and production.
  • Ingredient splitting is a common practice of boutique food companies. This sneaky trick makes the ingredients list look ‘healthy’ and meat-focused when the bag is full of nothing more than meat-flavored peas. Read more about this HERE.
  • Unregulated, emotional marketing terms and wild claims are used. These terms are used to intentionally mislead pet parents so they will spend more money to feel good about what they feed their pets.

“Holistic”, “human-grade”, and “super-premium” are just some that you may have heard.

  • They rarely, if ever, participate in legitimate AAFCO feeding trials, nor do they contribute to or benefit from the global veterinary science and research communities. This means that YOUR dog is the guinea pig.

Despite the ‘healthy’ and ‘holistic’ marketing, many dogs fed boutique diets long-term can and do suffer from a number of health conditions, including nutritional DCM and ultimately, congestive heart failure.

Veterinarians across the U.S. cite that poorly formulated foods are responsible for a number of other conditions that they see in their clinics. These things often include:

  • Chronic loose stools
  • Dry skin and itching (often diagnosed by pet parents as ‘allergies’)
  • Malnutrition
  • Obesity
  • Poor gut health
  • Irregular heart beat
  • Low energy
  • Urine crystals and stones
  • Low or high levels of important nutrients, minerals, and amino acids
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How to choose a dog food that doesn’t cause DCM

The best way to prevent N-DCM is to feed a high-quality diet from a heavily researched brand such as Purina or Royal Canin.

A good diet will provide your dog with all the nutrients they need to stay healthy. Marketing may have taught you that these brands are full of ‘fillers’ and junk, but that’s simply not true.

These brands’ formulas are highly researched and they invest millions of dollars every year into veterinary internal medicine organizations and learning more through science.

The contributions that the ‘Big 5’ food brands have made to veterinary research have helped us learn more about not only heart issues but bloat, cancer, wobblers, lifespan, and more. These brands are literally writing the book on companion animal health.

They also participate in feeding trials so that they can continuously improve their products, and they employ entire teams of dedicated professionals with advanced degrees in veterinary science and nutrition.

Boutique diets can make no claims to any of that. ⬅ As a matter of fact, these marketing brands are holding dogs back from fully benefitting from all of the current research and science that has been done to help them increase their life span.

The ingredients the “Big 5” brands use are there for nutritional reasons, including scary-sounding things such as ‘By-Product Meal’ and ‘corn’.

Both by-products and corn are extremely nutrient-dense. We cannot say the same about ‘fresh farm-raised deboned chicken’, which is literally 70% water.

If you’ve ever given a dog a whole dead chicken, know this: they will eat the WHOLE THING. Eyes, bones, feet, beak, stomach, stomach contents (including grains and yes, corn), liver, and more. The most nutritious part for them is not the watery muscle meat. It’s the ‘guts, bones, and junk’.

By-Products and meat meals are nothing more than the parts of the animal we humans are often uninterested in eating, that dogs desperately need in their diets!

Great Dane puppies

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If you give your dog a bully stick to chew on, you are giving your dog a by-product.

Boutique companies tend to choose ingredients such as “ancient grains” or “fresh deboned turkey” that look and feel pretty to you (so we buy the food), but not necessarily the ingredients that have been scientifically proven to make your dog look and feel its best.

Don’t believe us? Read our article about ingredient splitting in dog food. This dirty trick is what gives boutique food companies leverage to make you believe their formulas have ‘meat first’.

When it comes to your dog’s health, don’t be fooled by unregulated marketing terms, pretty packaging, “nice” sounding ingredients, or higher price points.

It’s literally a big fat money-making scheme, driven by pet store owners, influencers, and sales reps who stand to profit from it.

Common boutique food brands include Victor, Fromm, 4Health, Diamond (also Costco), Instinct, Earthborn Holistic, Acana, Orijen, Solid Gold, Farmina, Nulo, Nutro, and Nutrisource.

What is Ingredient Splitting in Dog Food?

How do I choose the Best Food for my Great Dane Puppy?

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Can nutritional DCM be reversed?

When caught early, nutritional dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs can be managed and is often reversed through an immediate diet change and certain cardiac medications if warranted.

Many dogs have shown almost complete recoveries from DCM when their owners switched them away from grain-free and boutique dog foods (aka “BEG” diets).

This means choosing a brand that is formulated, tested, and researched by on-staff board-certified veterinary nutritionists, and that meets the highest standards for formulation, ethics, and manufacturing practices outlined by the World Small Veterinary Association’s common-sense guidelines for choosing pet foods.

Currently, the only brands that actually meet this criteria, that also have no verified cases of Dilated Cardiomyopathy (despite carrying a massive market share compared to boutique dog foods) are:

  • Royal Canin
  • Purina
  • Hill’s Science Diet
  • Eukanuba
  • Iam’s

Here is our list of the best foods to feed Great Danes and other giant or large breeds. Tap any to view on Chewy.com, our favorite place to set up auto-ship!

For large and giant breed puppies:

For large and giant breed adults:

Raw Food, Bloat & Dane Health

We also support the use of well-formulated prey-model raw diets, only for owners who are working with a veterinarian or veterinary nutritionist and that are diligent about research, food sourcing, and balanced nutrition.

As a matter of fact, because fresh foods may lower the risk of bloat, and because kibble only diets have been shown in studies to increase bloat risk, we encourage Dane owners to feed a percentage of balanced raw diet and healthy fresh foods as toppers.

Keep unbalanced foods to 10% or less of the diet, no exceptions.

Interestingly enough, a properly formulated raw diet is FULL of by-products! Duck heads, chicken feet, kidneys, liver, and raw bone are just some things included in a correctly built raw bowl.

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Matilda, my tripod rescue Dane, at age 2.5 in her favorite place on Earth.

Matilda’s Story

There was a time, long before I wrote this blog post when I was a die-hard boutique dog foods snob.

I turned my nose up at Purina and Royal Canin and believed they were trash, choosing instead to feed my dogs an endless stream of boutique foods that I was buying to try and solve the issues they were facing.

Over the course of 5 years, I tried Fromm, Nutrisource, Nutro, Farmina, Earthborn, Honest Kitchen, Zignature, Nature’s Logic, and Nutro. I’m sure there were others!

Those brands told me that my dog would be healthier on their diet, and yet, we switched often trying to find the ‘right food’ because they were not actually healthier! I read ingredients lists until I was blue in the face.

In that time, between my three dogs (two are Danes) I saw:

  • Low energy
  • Dull coat
  • Itching
  • Chronic ear and paw infections
  • A massive lung infection that resulted in a $3500 vet bill
  • Allergies & paw swelling
  • Pink skin
  • Malnutrition and lack of muscle tone
  • Chronic loose stools and ‘sensitivities’
  • Acid reflux
  • Bed wedding
  • Screaming during sleep and becoming unresponsive
  • Low heat tolerance
  • Blue tongue indicating a lack of properly oxygenated blood

My female Dane Matilda was taking the brunt of the worst of them: reflux, bed wedding, low energy, and strange breathing patterns.

She began screaming in her sleep and would often be unresponsive to waking when I would jump out of bed to see what was wrong.

My veterinarian did a blood test, prescribed supplements and medications, talked about referring us to specialists, and also implored me to immediately put her on one of the “evil Big 5 Brands: Purina, Royal Canin, Eukanuba, Hill’s, Iam’s”. She also told us to follow up and retest once our dog had been put on more appropriate food.

I had no interest in feeding my dog Hill’s or Purina and was appalled that she would suggest it. My dog was sick, why would I feed her garbage!?

So, I marched myself into a natural boutique pet food store and asked a sales rep for nutrition advice.

Think about this for a moment.

I had a very sick dog and went first to a sales rep for nutrition advice. Somebody that, for some reason, I trusted more than my veterinarian.

Marketing taught me to trust the opinion of a sales-driven employee with no legitimate credentials, in a sales-driven store, over the opinion of somebody with 8+ years of high-level education followed by years of practice in actual veterinary medicine.

This is terrifying and I want people to be aware of the misguided bias and opinions that boutique food companies have used marketing to lead us to!

I consider myself a well-researched, educated, intelligent dog owner. All of us are susceptible to marketing.

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Matilda at the time when she had low muscle tone and was starved for nutrients, at the time when her health started to dramatically decline. She was eating FROMM at this point. Most people would think she appeared healthy, but she was absolutely struggling.

When she didn’t improve on the food brand the natural pet store told me to buy, I finally sucked up my pride and put her (and my other dogs) on Purina Pro Plan (at the continued urging of my veterinarian).

After just two weeks on Purina, all three of my dogs started showing signs of health I’d not seen from them, ever.

Softer coats, increasing energy levels, new muscle tone developing, no more screaming, no more pink skin. After a month, the allergies and swollen paws were gone. Bet wetting and reflux became a thing of the past.

Matilda’s energy levels continued to climb.

The change in their health happened so quickly, for all three of them, that I’m still baffled to this day.

We thought the end was near for our female Dane. That’s how sick she was. I was bawling; in my mind, I was starting to plan her funeral.

We believe now that she had been on the cusp of congestive heart failure, and it had been all my fault.

Since putting her on Purina, she’s now healthier and more robust than she was as a puppy. This photo below was taken of her after she had walked about 2 miles and yet still wanted to play, run circles around other dogs, and chase sticks:

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Matilda, 4 months after being switched to Pro Plan. She is now strong, energetic, full of life, and literally covered in muscle.
5 months prior to this we thought we were going to lose her.

Low energy is often misdiagnosed as ‘aging’ or ‘laziness’. That’s heartbreaking.

I’ll say this again: boutique dog foods are literally killing our dogs.

Don’t believe me? Think of all of the dogs you know. The itchy, overweight, low-muscle tone, low-energy dogs with chronic loose stools, dull coats, dry skin, ‘allergies’, and infections are likely all being fed boutique diets to ‘fix’ those issues.

Boutique dog food marketing has made sure of this.

Chicken, meet egg.

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How is DCM Treated in Dogs?

The treatment of dilated cardiomyopathy depends on the presentation, symptoms, and severity of the disease.

In addition to recommendations to choose a diet that was formulated by a board-certified veterinary nutritionist and subjected to rigorous research and testing, a cardiologist will often also prescribe medications and supplements that can help with missing nutrients, blood flow, chamber dilation, vascular dilation, and blood pressure.

Veterinary Cardiology is a specialized field comprised of individuals who first completed their veterinary schooling and went on to specialize and become board-certified.

Many of them are investing a lot of research, resources, and science into the study of nutritional and primary dilated cardiomyopathy DCM.

Their contribution to veterinary medicine, and the opinions that they have about the progression of this disease and its causes are valuable and important. You can find information about peer-reviewed research from them below.

Share Your Story

Did you have a dog die suddenly from unknown causes or from a confirmed case of nutritional dilated cardiomyopathy?

If you have lost a dog suddenly and are struggling to understand why, I am so sorry for your loss. Please share your story below, we want to hear it! Others need to hear it, too. Please use our platform for this.

If you are worried that your dog may be developing clinical signs of illness that may point to dilated cardiomyopathy DCM, seek veterinary care and a thorough physical examination immediately.

We also recommend that if you have been feeding a suspect BEG or boutique foods diet (with or without grains and with or without taurine supplementation) that you seek an echocardiogram as a means to catch any changes to the heart muscle at an early stage.

This is recommended even if you are not seeing any other clinical signs of impending congestive heart failure. Early diagnosis of changes to the heart muscle is key.

Resources:

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