AVC dog study trying to find way to diagnose fatal heart condition in boxers

A researcher at the Atlantic Veterinary College is studying boxer dogs, looking for a way to diagnose a fatal heart condition.

Atlantic Veterinary College researcher needs a few more boxers for study

Mitchell Myers has signed up his boxer Jaxon, or Jax, to be part of the study. (Ken Linton/CBC)

A researcher at the Atlantic Veterinary College is studying boxer dogs, looking for a way to diagnose a fatal heart condition.

Boxers are predisposed to a condition called arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy, or ARVC.

"In this condition, the biggest challenge that we are facing as a veterinarian is that there is no single diagnostic test that can identify all affected dogs," said researcher Dr. Deepmala Agarwal.

"In my research here as a cardiology resident, we are trying to develop new testing, especially the test that can help us identify this condition sooner than later."

Agarwal is using exercise testing, in this case running up and down stairs, to expose unusual heart activity while the dogs are at the vet hospital. (Ken Linton/CBC)

Agarwal said the condition is known as boxer dog cardiomyopathy, because it primarily affects boxers as a breed.

"One way this condition likes to manifest is by causing changes in electrical activity of the heart, that is something we can see on ECG or electrocardiogram," Agarwal said.

"But the problem with this condition is that dogs who are affected, ECG changes can be transient or intermittent."

Researcher Dr. Deepmala Agarwal does an ultrasound on a boxer named Laila as part of the research study. (Ken Linton/CBC)

Agarwal is using exercise testing to try to expose any ​unusual heart activity in dogs that appear to have otherwise normal hearts.

"We have them run up and down on stairs for about three minutes while they are wearing a special heart monitor," Agarwal said.

"The idea here is to see if exercise can help us expose those arrhythmias while these patients are in the hospital."

Motivated owners

Agarwal needs 30 boxers to be part of the research and has 20 dogs ready to participate in the study. She said she's been hearing from interested owners from as far away as Halifax.

"We tried to educate them that this can be a serious condition, and early identification and developing a new test is important. I think that's the biggest motivation," Agarwal said. 

"They want to see what their dog's heart looks like and also I have a large majority of pet owners who are interested to help the breed as a whole."

Agarwal holds the ECG results from Jax after running him up and down the stairs at the Atlantic Veterinary College. (Ken Linton/CBC)

Agarwal said if, during the testing, she sees anything suggesting that the condition is present, they would assess the dog as a candidate for medications.

"In my study I'm only recruiting dogs who seem to have a normal heart and they are not showing any symptoms right now," Agarwal said.

"I think our majority of the dogs we are going to make a recommendation about whether or not they can be bred, whether or not they need exercise restriction, whether or not they need any medications."

'Part of our family'

Mitchell Myers has signed up his boxer Jaxon, or Jax, to be part of the study after seeing it posted on social media.

"I immediately became interested as my family has had boxers for quite some years — myself and my wife, my uncle and also my brother-in-law," Myers said.

"Jax is five now, so if for some reason I could find out that he had a heart defect, possibly with this study, I could help extend his life or quality of life in the future."

As part of the research, Jax wore a monitoring device home for 24 hours so they could assess his heart outside of the office. (Ken Linton/CBC)

Myers has dropped Jax off at the vet college for the day a couple of times for testing, so far.

Jax also wore a monitoring device home for 24 hours so they could assess his heart outside of the office.

Myers is happy to help.

Agarwal points to the screen while performing an ultrasound on one of the boxers. (Ken Linton/CBC)

"Jax is a part of our family, just as much as the rest of my family, and if I could do something to proactively help them with the quality of their life, then certainly I feel like it's something that's fairly easily done," Myers said.

Agarwal said she hopes to complete the first phase of the study by the end of next year.

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Nancy Russell has been a reporter with CBC since 1987, in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto and Charlottetown. When not on the job, she spends her time on the water or in the gym rowing, or walking her dog.


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