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Canine Heart-Related Heartache

I’m sad to report that we now have a second terminal illness in the house. Our eldest dog Ginko (who is a lab + greyhound mix and 13 1/2 years old) was diagnosed Monday, October 7, with both leaky heart valves (due to old age) and premature ventricular contractions (a heart arrhythmia). We’re hopeful, but heartbroken.

appt with cardiologist 10-7-13

Ginko, Tom, and I waited in the outdoor courtyard before his cardiac tests Monday.

I haven’t yet picked up the full written report from the veterinary cardiologist, but the headlines are as follows:

  • Ginko’s heart valves are wrinkly around the edges, so they don’t close completely. This, over time, can lead to congestive heart failure.
  • The bottom of Ginko’s heart is not beating correctly. One of the “symptoms” of premature ventricular contractions (PVC) is sudden death.

In dogs, 60% of the time the PVC is secondary to inflammation or cancer somewhere else in the body (spleen, liver, etc.). It’s not too big of a jump to assume hemangiosarcoma. In the other 40% of dogs, no underlying cause can be found. BUT, an echocardiogram (ultrasound of the heart) shows that Ginko has NO structural reason for the arrhythmia (no cardiomyopathy, for example). 

Ginko’s PVC heart beat goes like this:

  • Normal heart beat
  • Extra beat (the ventricle contracting too soon)
  • Pause
  • A stronger-than-normal beat. Because his heart fills with more blood than usual during the pause following the PVC, the next beat has extra oomph.

I didn’t ask our veterinary team, but (based on what I learned from my mom’s fatal heart conditions) I suspect that the “sudden death” possibility comes either because the PVC leads to even more dangerous heart arrhythmia (such as ventricular tachycardia, where the heart gets way out of sync and essentially pumps itself dry) or that final super STRONG beat overwhelms the heart.

Then, we have the specter of possible cancer looming.

We do not plan to go looking for a tumor via abdominal ultrasound or other methods. The truth is this: Even if we found something, we likely would not treat it. Why put him through the tests?

So, we’re essentially in management and/or hospice mode with both dogs for the remainder of their lives — however long that is. In both cases, “cure” is not possible.

Our goal for Ginko has always been to get him to at least 15 years old. That’s 18 months from now.

Right now, both he and Lilly seem OK, and for that we are thankful.

We’re putting Ginko on a heart drug for the premature ventricular contractions called Sotalol. Our regular vet will listen to his heart in about 10 days, then in a month or so, he may have to wear a heart monitor from the veterinary cardiologist for a day or two to see if the meds are helping.

There is a chance he could survive quite a while, but he also could drop dead. Our veterinary team wanted us to be prepared for that. (As if you can prepare for something like that.)

KEEP - rox and ginko summer 2000

Me and a baby Ginko, Summer 2000

The news is less than 24 hours old for us, so I’m still in the major boo-hoo stage — merely the latest in a never-ending, 5-year-string of boo-hoo stages.

We have renewed reasons to be grateful for every day. That does not mean, however, that it’s easy.

We’ll do our best to continue to give Ginko — lover of fetch and Sofa Captain — the best possible life. This news simply hits home that he’s an old, old boy with old-boy medical problems. He is no longer my super-healthy, rock-steady elder statesman, and that breaks my heart.

If nothing else, your pal Roxanne is proof of just how much heartache one girl can take and remain standing. 

Roxanne Hawn

Trained as a traditional journalist and based in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, USA, I'm a full-time freelance writer for magazines, websites, and private clients. My areas of specialty include everything in the lifestyles arena, including health and home, personal finance and other consumer interests, relationships and trends, people and business profiles ... and, of course, all things pet related. I don't just love dogs. I need them in my life. Seriously.

Charles Marshall - November 4, 2013

Ohh! it’s a very bad news but everything gonna be alright soon.

Sue at Talking Dogs - November 1, 2013

I am so very sorry to read this. I lost my heart dog, Lucy, to congestive heart failure. Sending hugs and prayers.

Terry Cramer - October 10, 2013

I’m so sorry to hear about Ginko. I’ve been following your blog for sometime. My greyhound, Matilda just passed, 9 months after a cancer diagnosis and treatment. She had been doing really well right before her passing. I too had been hoping to get her to age 15. She has a slight resemblance to Ginko. She has been my rock, my anchor. Mt comfort will eventually be that she was doing great, and having fun right up to the moment that it all came crashing down. My heart goes out to you with all that you have been going through.
Terry, from

Maggie - October 9, 2013

Oh, Roxanne. I’m so sorry. I can’t imagine how hard all this must be on you and Tom. The universe sure loves to throw some curve balls. I’m thinking of you.

Hilary - October 9, 2013

Oh, Rox. I’m glad Ginko seems fine on the outside, and is responsive to everything around him. I bet he doesn’t know there’s anything wrong. Difficult for you and Tom for sure. Hugs and love to you, Tom, and Lilly.

Jen Donohue - October 9, 2013

Oh, Ginko 🙁 I’m so sorry. At least they’re still both doing “well” for the time being.

My understanding from reading about sudden death in Dobermans due to DCM (which I know you already said Ginko doesn’t have, but it’s my frame of reference for Heart Stuff in Dogs), is that it is the irregular rhythms that can/will cause it. Frequently, a dog has a sudden death DCM death, and the DCM hadn’t even been detected on his/her last holter.

    Roxanne Hawn - October 9, 2013

    Thanks, Jen. I did see in my online reading that this condition is pretty common on Dobermans. Our regular vet first heard the arrhythmia over the summer. Before that, Ginko’s heart had been strong and normal. I’m hoping the report I pick up will have EKG images because the ones I found online for PVC were CRAZY looking.

Lisa Spector - October 9, 2013

Sending you all calm, comfort and hugs. My heart goes out to you. I had a dream about you last night. We were just sitting and talking about Lilly and all things dog.

    Roxanne Hawn - October 9, 2013

    Aww. Funny that I showed up in your dreams. It would be lovely to sit and talk.

Edie - October 9, 2013

My heart is with you — sympathizing and empathizing.

    Roxanne Hawn - October 9, 2013

    Thanks, Edie. I feel the same about your hospice scenario. Poor us!

Eileen - October 9, 2013

Treasure his final days, how many or few they may be.
Sorry you have to bear this added burden.
Sending love x

    Roxanne Hawn - October 9, 2013

    We’re really hoping that he lasts a long time, but we’re also realistic. For now, while he still seems completely normal to us on the outside, we’ll focus on giving him happy, happy days. Right now, he is playing with a KONG stuffed with apple slices.

Donna - October 8, 2013

What awful news to have to digest when you’re already going through so much. 🙁 I can only hope that the meds help, and that he stays around with you for as long as possible. My thoughts are with you and your husband.

    Roxanne Hawn - October 9, 2013

    Thanks, Donna. It’s hitting me like a ton of bricks. After 5 years of everyone I love being sick and/or dying, I’m just exhausted with worry and sadness.

Sam - October 8, 2013

I’m so sorry. I wish I had the right words to say, but I am sending you hugs and love.

Monty and Harlow

    Roxanne Hawn - October 9, 2013

    Thanks, Sam, Monty, and Harlow.

Amy@GoPetFriendly - October 8, 2013

I’m so sorry, Roxanne. I cannot even imagine how difficult this must be for you.

    Roxanne Hawn - October 9, 2013

    Thanks, Amy. It’s tough, tough going. The hard part is that Ginko seems fine on the outside. So, I guess, until that changes, we’ll try not to be too sad.

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