Dilated cardiomyopathy in the cat

By | 2013-08-05

The aetiology of primary dilated cardiomyopathy in the cat is unknown. Recent work has indicated a close association between dietary taurine deficiency and dilated cardiomyopathy. In the cat, taurine is an essential amino acid which is required for the conjugation of bile acids. The premise that taurine deficiency is one of the causative factors in the pathogenesis of dilated cardiomyopathy is based on the fact that many cats on taurine-deficient diets develop myocardial failure which can be reversed with taurine supplementation.

However, not all cats on taurine-depleted diets develop dilated cardiomyopathy and some which do develop cardiomyopathy fail to respond to taurine supplementation. About 38% of cats with dilated cardiomyopathy in one study failed to respond to taurine supplementation and died within the first 30 days of treatment. Hypothermia and thromboembolism were found to increase the risk of early death.

It is also known that cats on apparently adequate diets can nevertheless become taurine deficient. The minimal concentration of taurine in the diet required to prevent signs of deficiency varies with the type of diet. For example, it has been shown that much higher concentrations (2000-2500 mg taurine / kg dry matter) of taurine are required in canned diets compared to dry cat foods since heating during the canning process produces products which increase the enterohepatic loss of taurine. Low plasma taurine levels have been reported in cats fed a taurine replete but potassium depleted diet containing 0.8% ammonium chloride as a urinary acidifier suggesting a possible association between taurine and potassium balance in cats. Dietary acidification exacerbates potassium depletion in cats by decreasing gastrointestinal absorption of potassium.

It has been suggested therefore that the aetiology of feline dilated cardiomyopathy, like that of dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs, is multifactorial. There is some evidence to show that genetic factors may play a role in feline dilated cardiomyopathy. Burmese, Siamese and Abyssinian cats appear predisposed. The incidence of dilated cardiomyopathy is higher in young to middle-aged cats; the evidence for a sex predilection is equivocal).


Impairment in myocardial contractility leads to systolic dysfunction and increased end-diastolic pressures. Progressive dilatation of the ventricles results in distortion of the atrioventricular valve apparatus and mitral regurgitation which, together with the reduction in myocardial contractility, contributes to the reduction in stroke volume and decreased cardiac output.

Clinical signs of Dilated cardiomyopathy

The clinical signs may be gradual in onset and are often rather vague (lethargy, reduced activity and decreased appetite). Many of the presenting signs are similar to those of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy making differentiation between the two diseases on a clinical basis difficult. Cats which are dyspnocic may be dehydrated and hypothermic with weak femoral pulses. There may be obvious pallor or cyanosis of the mucosae with a prolonged capillary refill time. Increased respiratory crackles in association with a gallop rhythm and systolic murmur are common findings; the presence of a large volume of pleural fluid may result in muffled heart sounds. Less frequently there is also evidence of right-sided failure (jugular distension, and hepatomegaly); ascites is a rare finding.


The electrocardiographic changes do not help differentiate dilated cardiomyopathy from the hypertrophic form of the disease. Some cats remain in a relatively slow sinus rhythm. Tall R waves and wide P waves and QRS complexes may be apparent in Lead II.

Arrhythmias, especially ventricular premature complexes, have been recorded in more than 50% of cases. The mean electrical axis is often within normal limits.

Radiographic findings

Thoracic radiographs typically show evidence of generalized cardiomegaly; enlargement of the-left atrium may be particularly marked. The cardiac silhouette is often obscured by the presence of a bilateral pleural effusion. Pulmonary venous congestion and oedema may be present but these changes are usually mild and are often masked by the presence of fluid in the pleural space. The caudal vena cava is often dilated and there may be evidence of hepatomegaly.


Echocardiography offers the most reliable means of differentiating dilated cardiomyopathy from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. The interventricular septum and left ventricular free wall appear thin and poorly contractile with a marked reduction in fractional shortening. Both ventricles and the left atrium appear dilated and left ventricular end-diastolic and end-systolic internal dimensions are increased.

Laboratory findings

Normal plasma taurine levels are greater than 60 nmol l-1 ; most cats with dilated cardiomyopathy have plasma taurine concentrations less than 20 nmol l-1 and often less than 10 nmol l-1. Taurine-defielent cats with thromboembolism may have slightly higher plasma taurine concentrations due to reperfusion hyperkalaemia. Whole blood taurine has been reported to be less sensitive to acute changes in taurine intake and provides a better indication of long-term taurine intake. Whole blood taurine concentrations greater than 280 nmol l-1 are considered adequate.

Prerenal azotaemia is a common finding in cats with dilated cardiomyopathy because of reduced renal perfusion. The pleural effusion which develops with feline dilated cardiomyopathy is typically a serosanguineous modified transudate; true chylous effusions have been reported in association with right heart failure.


Non-selective angiocardiography can be used to demonstrate dilatation of all cardiac chambers. The slow circulation time in cats with dilated cardiomyopathy increases the risk of thromboembolus formation during this procedure and decompensated cases should be stabilized beforehand.

Dilated cardiomyopathy: Treatment

Cats which are severely dyspnoeic should be given oxygen, kept warm and placed in a cage. Dyspnoeic animals, particularly those with suspected pleural effusion, should be handled with care and should not be placed in dorsal or lateral recumbency for radiography. A dorsoventral radiograph taken with the animal resting in sternal recumbency is usually sufficient to confirm the presence of pleural fluid. Thoracocentesis should be attempted before a more detailed radiographic examination is performed. Other therapeutic strategics are summarized below.

Digoxin improves myocardial contractility in some but not all cats with dilated cardiomyopathy and it has been suggested that the drug may act synergistically with taurine in this respect.The liquid form of the drug is unpalatable and is generally not well tolerated. There is considerable individual variation in the way in which cats respond to digoxin. The maintenance oral dose is 0.01 mg kg-1 every 48 h for an average 3-4 kg cat which is less than one quarter of a 62.5 μg tablet every other day. Cats with dilated cardiomyopathy are more susceptible to digoxin toxicity and tend to show toxic signs when the plasma concentration of digoxin is approximately 50% of the level which would be considered toxic in a normal healthy cat. Approximately 50% of cats given 0.01 mg kg-1 body weight every 48 h show signs of toxicity.

Other positive inotropic agents such as dopamine and dobutamine must be given by constant slow intravenous infusion and are, therefore, not used as extensively. Both drugs can be given at a rate of 1-5 μg kg-1 body weight min-1 ; with dobutamine, seizures have been reported with infusion rates as low as 5 μg kg-1 min-1 in cats.

Frusemide (initially 1.0 mg kg-1 body weight intravenously twice daily; for maintenance 1-2 mg kg-1 body weight per os once or twice daily)

Mixed arteriovenous vasodilators such as captopril (3.12-6.25 mg kg-1 body weight per os twice or three times daily; this dose equates to approximately one-eighth to one quarter of a 25 mg tablet) or venodilators such as 2% nitroglycerine ointment (1/8-1/4 inch applied three times daily to the inside of the pinna) can be given although the beneficial effects of these drugs have yet to be evaluated fully in cats with dilated cardiomyopathy. They should not be given to cats with cardiogenic shock since they may potentiate the fall in cardiac output especially if used in conjunction with diuretic agents.

Animals which are severely hydrated may require intravenous or subcutaneous fluid therapy, for example 0.45% saline with 2.5% dextrose solution may help combat the effects of circulatory failure. The recommended rate of infusion is 25-35 ml kg-1 body weight day-1 given in two or three divided doses. Care should be taken so that the rate of infusion optimizes cardiac output but minimizes the risk of exacerbating pulmonary oedema or a pleural effusion.

Aspirin (25 mg kg-1 body weight every 72 h).

Taurine supplementation (250-500 mg per os twice daily) may result in a dramatic clinical improvement within 1-2 weeks when dilated cardiomyopathy is associated with taurine deficiency although cehocardiographic evidence of improved cardiac performance is usually not evident until after at least three weeks of treatment.

Sodium restricted diet.


The prognosis for cats which fail to resond to taurine therapy is poor. About 93% of early deaths occur within the first two weeks; few survive longer than one month. Taurine supplementation can eventually be discontinued if adequate taurine intake is provided for in the food.