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Seminar 2000


The Seminar was held on October 22nd, 2000. This was an excellent day, which went really well and was most enjoyable as well as interesting and informative. Marie Walsh had done a wonderful job with the buffet lunch, which not only tasted good but was attractively laid out with decorations on a Halloween theme.


Dr. Serena Brownlie was the morning speaker, talking about the Heart Disease Research Project and heart disease in the Irish wolfhound. She focussed particularly on cardiomyopathy, because this is the main problem seen in the breed. There are various types of cardiomyopathy but the one associated with the Irish wolfhound is Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM), which is a disease of the heart muscle which leads to enlargement of the heart chambers, thinning of the heart wall, and poor contractility (meaning that the heart cannot pump very well).


The left ventricle is the main pumping chamber of the heart and in DCM this enlarges. As it enlarges it prevents the mitral valve (the valve that is situated between the left ventricle and the left atrium [the chamber above it]) from closing off properly because the area in which the valve is seated is enlarged. This means that blood flows back into the left atrium which then enlarges as well.


There are various signs of the onset of heart disease, such as exercise intolerance, fluid retention (particularly in the abdomen - known as ascites - but can be in the chest cavity), coughing (which is not actually a very common sign of DCM), and weight loss, which is a very common early sign. Often it is the first thing owners notice.

Ways of finding out the existence of heart disease include listening to the heart sounds with a stethoscope but expertise is required in order to be able to pick out much. Big breeds can have heart murmurs without having heart disease. X-rays can be very useful for finding heart failure but not for finding heart disease in earlier stages. Electrocardiograms are very helpful as a diagnostic tool, and ultrasound (echocardiogram) is particularly useful.


When the heart disease research project started, back in 1986, we had first to find out what an Irish wolfhound heart should look like, because very little was known about heart disease in the dog and nothing at all about how a healthy heart should be in the different breeds. The ultrasound allowed measurements to be taken, as well as showing a picture of the heart working. By following up many hounds it was also possible to find out what signs occurred when heart disease was beginning and how it progressed. For example, it is now known that when the left atrium starts to enlarge it shows the dog is moving inevitably to heart failure.

As regards treatment for heart disease, drug treatment should only be given in the later stages of heart failure and not early on in the disease process because the side effects are then worse than the disease. However, there is a new class of drug out, called pimobendan. All the trials on this drug have been done in Europe, so not much is known about it yet in the U.K. It is supposed to increase contractility of the heart muscle, but, if the heart is very weak, it may make things worse because you cannot make something that is very weak work harder without very likely causing it to collapse completely. So, if your vet suggests using it, use it sooner rather than later. Other possible treatments include homoeopathy and orthomolecular therapy (using nutritional supplements).

Some research has been done into causes of cardiomyopathy. Taurine (an amino acid) was implicated in the incidence of cardiomyopathy in cats, which can not make their own taurine. Adding taurine to cat foods did reduce the incidence but did not completely remove the problem. Dogs are thought to be able to make their own taurine, so a deficiency should not be implicated with them. A family of Boxers in the U.S.A. were found to have cardiomyopathy due to a carnitine deficiency (carnitine is another amino acid) but this has also not been found to be a widespread cause in dogs.

Other possible causes are infection and genetics. There is a suggestion that DCM is a late stage of myocarditis as inflammatory cells are found in the heart muscle of humans and animals with DCM. Parvovirus was found in the heart muscle of dogs with normal hearts and those with DCM. Because it was found in those with normal hearts, the presumption is it is not a cause of DCM, but why is it there and how did it get there? A possibility is from vaccines. Genetics is coming to the fore with the mapping of the canine genome, so finding a gene that is responsible for DCM may be a possibility.

On the ECG survey from 1986 to the present, 1350 dogs have been checked and the most common finding was atrial fibrillation which was found in 148 dogs, 45 of which are known to have died of heart failure. We have not been able to re-examine many of these dogs and although it is known that some have died of other causes, that is not to say that they did not also have DCM or would not have developed it had they lived longer.

A feature of the Irish wolfhound that is different to any other breed is the amount of ECG abnormalities found in the breed. Interestingly, the percentage of dogs with atrial fibrillation has remained the same all through the project (at about 11 per cent). This was the case when only two hundred dogs had been checked and as more and more were checked and up to the latest figures. No-one knows why the wolfhound is so prone to atrial fibrillation but we do think that it is a prognostic indicator and that it means DCM will occur at some stage. A possibility is that the increase in heart rate of atrial fibrillation is what leads to DCM. Perhaps we should be treating dogs with atrial fibrillation rather than waiting for them to get DCM and die from heart failure.

An eminent Professor of cardiology in the human sphere is very interested in the fact that wolfhounds have such a high rate of atrial fibrillation. He wants to find what happens in the heart before atrial fibrillation starts and he wants to find out if atrial fibrillation when it starts can be reversed to prevent DCM occurring. Prof. Peters would like to have the co-operation of wolfhound owners to set up a scheme whereby hounds that are from families that are known to have had atrial fibrillation can be monitored with frequent checks.

To begin with he would like to have twenty dogs over two years of age, plus another twenty that are from families not known to have DCM. The checking would not involve travelling but a technician would visit to carry out the checks.

The first speaker of the afternoon was Gwylem Swift, MRCVS, talking about acupuncture. Acupuncture started, as far as is known, in Tibet or India some four to five thousand years ago and then moved to China. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is based on a view of the five elements - earth, wood, water, air, metal - each of which is linked to an organ within the body and to energy pathways known as Meridians, along which are found points known as acupoints. Needles put into some of these acupoints are used to treat disorders.

It is not known how acupuncture works but one consideration of what happens is that the needle going into an acupoint sets up the release of various endorphins, enzymes, etc. which affect the body in various ways. Pain relief can be very dramatic and acupuncture can be used in place of anaesthesia for surgery. There are also certain points on the body which, when stimulated, will enhance immunity.

Besides the use of needles alone, there are several alternative methods which can be used in acupuncture. One is the use of moxibustion, which is the burning of a herb called Moxa placed on the end of the needle which has been inserted into a point. Mr. Swift says moxa smells so awful he does not ever use this method. Aquapuncture is the injection of liquids into acupoints. For example, this could be vitamin B12 but homeopathic remedies can also be injected into the acupoints to enhance the effect, although this latter method is not available in the U.K. as yet. Electroacupuncture is the use of a machine with electrodes which are placed on acupoints to give stimulation by electrical current. This is not very helpful in dogs because the skin needs to be free of hair and a dog would require shaving in the areas of the relevant acupoints.

Using a soft laser is a great help for healing of wolfhound tails. The tail does need to be protected following treatment. This laser is also useful for treating ulcerated areas of skin. An infrared beam can also be used and this is particularly useful for the treatment of horses.

Acupuncture is used most for chronic joint disease, intervertebral disc disease, and other problems of the musculo-skeletal system. Also for lick granulomas, sensory neuro-dermatitis, allergic dermatitis, nerve paralysis, epilepsy, respiratory problems (especially chronic upper respiratory problems), and gastro-intestinal disorders.

Acupuncture is 85-90 per cent effective. If there is no good response after two to three treatments, you should be questioning whether it is going to work.

The last speaker of the day was Rosemary Follett on the Breed Standard. She stressed the importance of knowing what the wolfhound was bred to do, because you could then see how it needed to be in order to carry out that work. It is immaterial that it is no longer doing any work; the criteria still apply. She read out details about the wolf, how it hunted, what it hunted and its range of territory, and then read out the original Breed Standard formulated by the Irish Wolfhound Club.

She went through the Standard with two wolfhounds as models, explaining why certain qualities were demanded in the light of what the wolfhound was meant to be capable of. For example, back rather long than short because the wolfhound is a galloping hound that needs to be able to do the doublesuspension gallop and so needs to have the length of back that will permit its spine to bend in order to achieve this gait. The tail needs to be long and to be held correctly and not curled up over the back because it is a rudder that helps in steering at speed and in balancing the hound.

She mentioned how little interest many of those in the breed show in its history, despite there being so many opportunities to see my History Display and look back at how the breed has been over the years, and how little interest there is in studying the breed in depth at shows. There ensued a lively discussion between members of the audience and the speaker, so that the day ended on a really positive note.


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