Just like people, pets can have high cholesterol — but for different reasons and with different implications.
If I discover that a dog has high cholesterol levels, my first thought is to wonder if that patient has an underlying health problem, rather than worry about the risk of stroke or heart attack.
As it happens, 3 dog breeds — the miniature schnauzer, doberman and rottweiler — can be genetically predisposed to running high cholesterol levels, but they are the exception rather than the rule.
Symptoms of High Cholesterol in Dogs or Cats
You might have heard your vet refer to this as hyperlipidemia. Unlike for people, it is rare for a pet with high cholesterol to suffer from circulatory disease or a stroke as a result. In many instances, the dog or cat will not show any symptoms — or if he does, the symptoms reflect the underlying disease that is driving his high cholesterol.
The exception to this is pancreatitis. Raised cholesterol is a risk factor for the development of pancreatitis, which is a painful condition where the pancreas becomes inflamed and starts to digest itself. In mild cases this can just mean a loss of appetite, through to vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration and fever, but in severe cases it can lead to circulatory collapse and even death.
What Causes It?
Diet does play a role in the development of high levels of cholesterol in dogs and cats, just as it does for people.
I once treated a cat belonging to a housebound woman who fed her pet lots of cheese and butter. When I took bloods for testing, it was like drawing pink-tinged double cream from his vein. Granted, this is an extreme example, but the principle remains the same: Too much fat in the diet has to go somewhere!
Diet aside, several diseases will predispose a pet to elevated cholesterol:
- Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid glands)
- Cushing’s disease
- Liver disease
- Gall bladder obstruction
- Genetic makeup
At this point I feel compelled to mention miniature schnauzers. This breed has a quirky genetic predisposition to higher cholesterol. Because of this, they are over-represented in the number of cases of pancreatitis cases I’ve treated, and they also tend to be the sickest. With this in mind, if I had a schnauzer I’d think twice before giving fatty treats such as sausages, and perhaps consider feeding only a low-fat diet.
This is made on blood work — indeed, the vet tech has a good idea before even running the blood machine because the spun blood has a fatty layer at the top of the tube.
Unlike for people, we rarely use cholesterol-lowering drugs in pets. It’s more effective to treat the underlying cause rather than the fat itself.
I expect a diabetic cat’s cholesterol levels to decrease once she is stabilized on insulin, and that a Labrador with an underactive thyroid should normalize on thyroid supplements.
If your pet is otherwise healthy but has elevated cholesterol, assess her diet.
It is easy to forget how fatty a sausage or burger is, especially as the portion size is so much larger when compared to the size of a dog or cat. It’s worth taking a moment to review what treats she gets, because those bits of chicken skin, or bowls of full-fat milk, are likely to be quite fatty.
If your dog is overweight, put him on a diet in a controlled way. An obese animal that is starved is likely to activate his fat reserves for energy, and this will send his cholesterol levels rocketing.
If your pet is at risk of pancreatitis, or his cholesterol is high, consider feeding a low-fat prescription diet. These are usually high-fiber and low-fat, and can help your pet feel full but without loading him with cholesterol. Talk with your veterinarian about which is the best diet for your pet.
- Clinical Medicine in the Dog and Cat. Michael Schaeler. Manson Publishing.
- Interpretation of Laboratory Results for Small Animal Clinicians. B.M. Bush. Blackwell Science.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian.