Charlie’s Story - It is not an uncommon event these days to hear Irish Wolfhound breeders and owners talking about heart disease, heart testing, equivocal test results, testing normal/clear, re-testing, heart monitors, Doppler, ECG, Atrial Fibrillation (AF) and Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM). To many people, although these terms almost constitute a different language, they have fortunately become so frequently aired that they nearly become a casual and distanced discussion, topics that seem somehow a million miles away from our much loved hounds. I use the word ‘fortunately’ because this current state of affairs is a huge, positive step forwards for anyone involved in the breed (and many other breeds); the mere fact that the whole issue of heart problems in our dogs is now an open conversation means that we will make practical advances in improving the quality of life of our Wolfhounds and also extend their life expectancy. Many owners already in the breed are familiar with the regional heart testing scheme run by the Irish Wolfhound Health Group and the great importance we all place upon getting our hounds tested every year and thankfully, even those dogs diagnosed with some heart issue/abnormality do go on to lead happy lives with or without medication. For the unfortunate owners of dogs whose diagnosis is not as good however, these results can signal the start of a very painful journey and one which always culminates in great sadness.

Any dog owner whose pets have been affected by serious heart conditions bears an almost tangible scar as a result of dealing with the illness, in the same way that other terminal conditions like osteosarcoma leave their mark. The following story is not designed to cause distress or upset, nor is it intended to scaremonger or seek pity for those involved, it is merely a personal account of the devastation that these illnesses can cause.

We were the proud owners of 2 Neapolitan Mastiff bitches, one we had raised from a puppy and she was then around 2 years old and the other girl was retired to us at the age of 12 years. The older bitch took ill one morning and it appeared she had suffered some kind of stroke and had become paralysed from the neck down, so we had no option but to have her put to sleep. She had been with us for 6 months and we knew she had enjoyed a happy life prior to that and certainly she had a good time with us too. This left our younger bitch on her own and at that point in our lives we both worked full time – my husband working days and myself working 24 hour rotating shifts. The younger bitch became lonely without her companion so we set about tracking down a new friend for her. Luckily someone we knew had taken a dog back that was originally sold as a puppy and then after 2 years the owners had decided that they did not want the dog anymore and did not have time for him. We went along to see this male and we instantly fell in love and brought him home with us, much to the delight (eventually) of our bitch. Charlie was a huge dog, even by breed standards and a stunning looking boy with the sweetest temperament, but straight away we noticed he had some rather unique quirks. His stomach seemed a little swollen and he would frequently fall asleep whilst still sat up! He took a few days to settle in and so we left it for a week or so before taking him to our own vet to register him and get him checked over. Our vet on this first visit was the senior partner of the practice and familiar with the breed and he checked Charlie over and advised us that he thought the swollen stomach may be worm infestation and prescribed worming treatment and started a new course of vaccinations as we did not have any vaccination history for him. Things seemed great with Charlie for a couple of weeks after the first trip to the vets, but his swollen stomach did not seem to go down so we made another appointment. On the second trip we saw a different vet and she checked Charlie over and then announced that there was a problem with his heart (this was back in the 1990’s and my husband and I were not familiar with heart conditions, probably not a bad thing at this point).

A conversation then took place which focused on where Charlie had come from and the vet’s opinion that the previous owners should be prosecuted, meanwhile I was stood looking at a dog I now utterly adored and wondering what this all meant? We were given a diagnosis of dilated cardiomyopathy right then and there and informed that his swollen stomach was a result of fluid leaking from his heart valves into his body. Nothing else was discussed and we were sent away with tablets (diuretics) “to remove some of the excess fluid from the body”. I don’t remember if this diagnosis was confirmed with x-rays, EKG or ultrasound as the next few weeks all seemed to blur into one. The only other thing we both vividly remember about that visit was being told that Charlie, at the most, had 6 months to live...............we were both in tears way before we left the consulting room. For the next few weeks we tried to get on with things and we gave Charlie his diuretics every day and he seemed to be improving a little and not as tired and lethargic as before. There were 2 main dramas that we dealt with on a daily basis at this point; firstly, the diuretics worked very well and every afternoon, whoever was home first, faced an ocean of urine when they walked into the house – the whole ground floor was literally swimming in the stuff. Secondly, although some of the fluid was being removed with the medication, a fair amount still remained in his body and as a result Charlie snored. In fact he snored so loudly that even our neighbours could hear it at night (we lived in a semi-detached house) and complained about it! His distended stomach acted like a drum and his snoring reverberated on a massive scale and I ended up at the GP with chronic insomnia for the first time in my life.

Eventually the diuretics seemed to stop working and so on another trip to the vets we were advised to bring Charlie in once a week to have the fluid ‘drained off manually’. So every week that’s what we did and it was not until the penultimate occasion that I found out what draining the fluid off manually actually entailed – I was horrified! The vet had decided that it was better to drain Charlie off outside in the paddock at the back of the surgery, due to the sheer amount of fluid that would have flooded the theatre floor otherwise. As I walked around the car park next to the paddock I saw my beloved pet with 2 rope slip leads around his neck, one lead being held by a vet nurse on one side and the other lead being held by someone else on the other side – a game of ‘push me, pull you’ seemed to be happening and in the middle was the vet inserting syringes into Charlie’s stomach and then pulling out the plungers to allow the fluid to gush out. It is an image that will haunt me to the end of my days.

We soon found ourselves having to have the fluid drained from Charlie on an almost daily basis and so we asked another vet in the practice for advice. He was very sympathetic and understanding, but we pushed him to tell us the realities of what could happen. The vet advised that, as we were both out at work some days for a few hours and Charlie was at home, then there was now a distinct possibility that the fluid would build up and he would drown, but that the drowning may take a few agonizing hours. It seemed at this stage that the decision had been taken out of our hands and we let Charlie go on this final visit and yet again, we were all in tears, even the vet.

What happened to Charlie was incredibly distressing and if we had known at the time, I’m not sure we would have chosen the path that we did. Although Neapolitan’s have a breed predisposition to DCM and other heart disease, they were not routinely heart tested and I believe are still not routinely tested even now (it is only a recommendation and not a requirement on the Assured Breeder Scheme).

My message in recounting this traumatic part of our life is a simple one: if you understand just one thing about heart disease and heart testing in our much loved Wolfhounds, understand how utterly devastating this disease can be and anything we can do to help reduce it or even eliminate it completely MUST be done.