Celebrate the Whippet Breed

Heart Murmurs

by Dr. Lisa Costello, DVM

Have just finished reading the various posts on heart problems and full disclosure on genetic problems within our breed. I have cut out a few items to answer...no specific order. I don't always remember who posted them either, so I apologize for this:

Karen Lee said:

"I think in order to expect breeders to really confront the problem, they have to be given the tools to do it. The current state of knowledge is NOT sufficient to allow breeders to realistically eliminate all heart defects from all puppies.

Well......I agree that the "tools" are not in place but am not sure what you have in mind. From my standpoint, the first and foremost item must be an ACCURATE DIAGNOSIS which is usually not the case in the reports I get from breeders. We have to have a consistent and accurate diagnosis before being able to compare disease processes. Most of the time when we talk about heart problems on this list, we discuss them as a group....like hypothyroidism or demodex....one single item. The truth is that heart murmurs are just a SYMPTOM of disease, NOT a diagnosis. A single murmur can sound like many different forms of cardiac disease. Thus, I have always recommended (until blue in the face sometimes) that you have an echocardiogram (ultrasound) done to diagnose what the exact problem is. Your vets ears are not good enough to do this, no matter how good they are.

Once you have an accurate diagnosis, then you need to find out if the condition is heritable (for the age of the dog) if you plan to use the dog for breeding. One person said their vet told them pulmonic stenosis was heritable in their whippet. I beg to differ on that opinion and would welcome the studies that backed that comment. I have had 2 people contact me with isolated cases of this problem in whippets and found no evidence, whatsoever, to believe it is inherited in this breed. Other breeds? Perhaps, but not in whippets. Is it a polygenic trait? Perhaps in other breeds but not in whippets that I am aware of and I have not read about enough affected whippets to believe any veterinary cardiologists can make this comment either.

Once you have the genetic transmission known (thousands of dollars and years later) you can then record the disease incidence in the breed within a full disclosure database and breeders will have the necessary tools to eliminate the problem from their breeding program. Impossible? No. Likley? Not in the near future. I will talk about full disclosure in another post.

At this point in time, the best we can do is have yearly check-ups on our dogs and when problems are detected, do what is necessary to diagnose the problem accurately. If you are a breeder or stud dog owner, you have an ethical obligation (yes....my opinion, not Godly rule) to either not breed the dogs with problems, or make them known to folks who are interested in using your breeding or buying your breeding. If there are problems in the pedigree, I, for one, DO think it needs to be talked about.

Sue Smith then said:

"Based on the research I did earlier, a "Grade 5" heart murmur is the next to the LOUDEST murmur that is audibly present. Hearts aren't supposed to be that loud

. Anything greater than a two on the "murmur scale" leads to a good possibility of aortic stenosis." Heart murmurs are ranked on a scale of 6. Grade 6 out of 6 is the worst possible murmur. Grade 1 is the quietest murmur you can have. Murmurs louder than Grade 2 are just louder murmurs...they do not indicate any actual disease condition other than an abnormal sound. You must do the diagnostic tests to find out what exactly is going on in the heart to create the sound. Brad L. then said: "Folks, she didn't suddenly develop a grade 5 murmur at the age of 12. Obviously, it had been there for some time, and progressed through stages 1-4 until finally discovered...........She was a very hearty old girl, and hadn't been to the vet for years....I do all my own shots, and had gotten her Rabies shots at township clinics." I am sure this murmur did indeed start as a Grade 1 and progressed sometime during the years she was not seen at the vet to a Grade 5. They don't just overnight develop Grade 5 murmurs but they can progress rapidly from early to late stage congestive heart failure, depending on how bad the heart muscle is, how long they have gone undiagnosed and unmedicated and how well they tolerate meds when given. "It's time to get our heads out of the sand and acknowledge the severity of this problem...it's here, and it's not going to go away without some open, honest discussion." Again, I have to ask what condition it is that we speak of? What, exactly, where the diagnoses on the affected dogs? If one had cardiomyopathy and one had pulmonic stenosis and one had mitral valve disease and one had congestive heart failure at an early age, you are comparing apples and oranges. If they all suffered from mitral valvular disease leading to congestive changes and eventually heart failure then you are right....it most likely was heritable and should be recorded and talked about. I am not picking on Brad...just wanted to illustrate the point that not all murmurs indicate the same disease condition. Another post asked: "Are arrhythmias more serious in whippets than in other breeds? I own 2/3 of the whippets in town, so it's not as though anyone here has much experience with them."

Oh my God, NO!!!!!! While we are talking about it on this list, which is a very small subsect of whippet folks across the world, I do not think this breed suffers from a higher incidence of heart problems than other breeds. Does our breed have a problem? I can't honestly answer that. I have some reports of isolated cases on my desk at home that usually involve different kinds of heart problems from dogs of unrelated pedigrees. So far I have not had anything that has raised my eyebrows enough to make me think we need to spend a lot of research dollars on investigating one condition. What I do think the Health Foundation needs to do is begin collecting information in a database style so we can track actual incidence and what exactly we are looking at. Most other breeds have many more problems than the Whippet does.

Another post asked:

"Vet told me that 'dirty' teeth can lead to heart problems. I could assume that dirty teeth can pass bacteria into the system and affect the heart more than other organs." The most common condition they talk about in humans is bacterial endocarditis which is an infection on the heart valve itself. Yes, this can be very serious in humans...does not seem to be as high an incidence in dogs. I do believe heart patients should have their mouths cleaned on a regular basis (well.....all dogs really should have this) to keep their hearts as clean as possible. Not only do dirty teeth shower the heart with bacteria, but if it gets in the bloodstream, the entire body and all organs get the same lovely bacterial germ shower. Nice, huh? CLEAN YOUR DOGS TEETH! Last question I wanted to answer: "Since many dogs don't develope heart murmurs until later in life is an echo something we should be doing once a year? Every 2 years? Every 3 years? At what age should we start? When do we stop? Do we ever stop?"

You do not need to have an echocardiogram done until there is a murmur present. If you want to be ABSOLUTELY sure your breeding dog does not have a problem, you can get a prophylactic one done prior to breeding. Many other breeds will do this. If you are not breeding your dogs, you do not need to do echo's until there is a problem but their hearts should be ausculted by a vet yearly. Once a problem is detected, some vets will want to do an echo yearly, some every 6 months until they have a grasp of how fast the condition is deteriorating. You would have to defer to your vet or cardiologist for advice on follow-up echos. They are important as they help fine tune the medication. That's all for now folks, thanks for reading. Lisa