What comes to mind when you hear the phrases “high cholesterol” or “high triglycerides”? Do you think of heart disease, heart attacks or stroke? Maybe you think about getting more physical activity, losing weight or taking medication.
In the case of people, you’d be correct.
But what about dogs? Can they even have high cholesterol or high triglycerides?
Yes, dogs can have diseases that may cause their level of cholesterol or triglycerides in the blood to be too high, a condition known as hyperlipidemia. But high blood cholesterol and triglycerides in dogs has nothing to do with the heart.
Is hyperlipidemia normal or cause for concern?
If your dog had blood drawn within an hour to two of eating a meal, your veterinarian may have described the serum sample as “lipemic” and asked you to have your dog fast for eight to 12 hours before having blood drawn again. That’s a prime example of postprandial hyperlipidemia, or increased lipid (fat) levels in the blood after eating. It’s also completely normal and not a cause for concern — unless your dog is overweight or obese.
After a meal, food is digested in the small intestine and nutrients are absorbed into the blood and lymphatic systems for delivery to tissues throughout the body. Consequently, both triglyceride and cholesterol levels in the blood increase temporarily before returning to baseline levels in seven to 12 hours after a meal.
However, if blood levels of cholesterol, triglycerides or both stay high despite a 12- to 18-hour fast, your veterinarian will want to investigate further to determine the underlying cause. In dogs, high blood cholesterol or triglycerides are often associated with diseases of the endocrine system, the collection of glands that produce and secrete hormones. Diabetes (too little or no insulin secretion), hypothyroidism (too little thyroid hormone), Cushing’s disease (too much cortisol production) and pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas) can affect metabolism and contribute to hyperlipidemia. In addition, certain kidney diseases are linked to increased blood triglycerides or cholesterol. More recently, veterinary researchers found chronic obesity results in elevated cholesterol and triglyceride levels in dogs.
In all these cases, hyperlipidemia is a cause for concern. But once the underlying health condition is managed or controlled, blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels should return to normal.
Another form of high blood cholesterol or triglycerides, known as primary hyperlipidemia, doesn’t have an underlying disease cause but is hereditary. Several dog breeds are predisposed to the condition, with miniature schnauzers and Shetland sheepdogs among the most common breeds affected. If affected, some of these dogs will show clinical signs while others have none.
Finding and treating elevated blood lipids in dogs
High blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels frequently have no clinical signs that alert you to their presence. The condition is often found only when your veterinarian performs routine screening blood tests.
That’s not to say you may never see clinical signs of hyperlipidemia. In some cases, signs do occur and are often associated with the digestive system. Your dog may experience vomiting, diarrhea, decreased appetite and potentially pancreatitis. Other affected dogs may have excess fats deposited on the cornea of the eye, which you’ll notice as a white patch, or in the eye itself, which leads to inflammation of the eye and/or blindness.
Treatment for high cholesterol, triglycerides or both depends on the underlying cause. If hyperlipidemia is associated with another disease, it typically resolves once the underlying condition is treated. If increased blood lipids are caused by obesity, weight loss will be necessary.
Dogs with hereditary hyperlipidemia, however, will need additional treatment. Diet is the cornerstone of treatment for these cases. A low-fat, high-fiber dog food, such as Diamond CARE Weight Management Formula for Adult Dogs, can help resolve many cases of hyperlipidemia. And if a change in diet alone isn’t enough, your veterinarian will prescribe medication to help lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels.