One Big Heart

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So typically, Holden writes these blog posts, but he asked me to write this one today, because he said his paws would get tired since it’s a long one . It may not be as funny or as cute as when he writes, but he let me know he’d let this one slide.

On Friday, Nov. 2, I woke up and checked Holden’s Instagram (#dogmomager alert!) and saw quite a lot of noise about the grain-free diets (with legumes) in dogs, specifically what was happening with golden retrievers. One of Holden’s insta furiends, Barley, from @barley.and.stella had shared that she had recently been diagnosed with Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM). I learned that Barley had very heavy breathing and was admitted to the emergency veterinarian. This made me think about my sweet Holden.

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Barley’s Instagram post that caught my attention about DCM in golden retrievers.

For several months, Holden has had some pretty intense breathing, but always when playing with Sophie or after a long walk.. nothing too out of the normal. I did notice that he was putting effort into breathing when he was laying down, but this is just what Holden did. He loved to play, fetch, swim, hike, snuggle — just like a normal, healthy dog would. He never seemed to get fatigued from too much exercise. I would have never taken him to get checked out if I did not see Barley’s Instagram post. I did take a video of his breathing that night.

That Friday, I called the veterinary hospital where I actually worked as a veterinary technician throughout college, and let them know what was going on with Holden. I let them know I was probably just being a “crazy dog mom”, but I just wanted to get him checked out to be safe. Better safe than sorry, right? We got an appointment the next morning.

So on Saturday, Nov. 3, I took Holden to see one of our favorite veterinarians and I let her know that I saw a post on Instagram and that I’ve freaked myself out. She laughed and gave Holden lots of love, since she was his veterinarian when he was a puppy. She listened to his chest and heart, and all sounded normal. So I was all like … “whew, I truly am just a crazy dog mom. This is great.” She asked a few more questions about his breathing and said that they would take some X-rays to make sure all looked fine.

And now begins our roller coaster. After they took his films, she brought Holden back in and let me know they found something that wasn’t supposed to be in/on his cranial mediastinum. This could be a few things: lymphoma (cancer), thymoma (fatty tissue) or infection. Of course when I heard the word cancer, I flip out and the tears start coming. I think that there is just no way my perfect dog is sick. We just went hiking last weekend! He is fine! We didn’t know much else and were scheduled for an ultrasound on Tuesday, Nov. 6. I was a worried sick. All I could do is think about how amazing Holden is and that he is just too young to have anything like this happen to him. He is three years old. Like no way. He is my very best friend. I can’t imagine life without him. To get my mind off of things, Holden and I walked to a spot in our neighborhood and took some beautiful shots of him. We had a special time, just the two of us. I would give him treats and pets in between each photo and he was just loving all the one-on-one attention.

My favorite photo from our special photoshoot.

After a VERY long weekend and Monday, Tuesday, Nov. 5 comes around and I take Holden back to the vet for his ultrasound. I dropped him off at 7:30 a.m. and then received a call at 2 p.m. We got some very good and very bad news.

The good news is that the mass on his cranial mediastinum was just fatty tissue. We don’t even have to worry about it. This means no lymphoma. Prayers answered. The bad news was that they decided to do an echocardiogram on Holden’s heart, and found had that he has just too big of a heart and fluid in his chest. She asked if we could pick him up and go straight to the emergency vet to see the cardiologist.

All of this was happening so fast. I woke up truly thinking my sweet boy had cancer, and now I had to wrap my brain around the fact that his heart needed immediate attention. We picked him up from our vet hospital and drove immediately to the emergency/specialty hospital. They let us know that the cardiologist there would do an echocardiogram and an ultrasound to confirm his diagnosis. Several hours later, we got the call that confirmed this diagnosis. Holden was diagnosed with Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) and Congestive Heart Failure. Holden basically has one big heart (and not because he loves so much, even though this is what I’d like to think). His left atrium is mildly dilated, left ventricle is severely dilated. Systolic function is severely reduced which is indicative of myocardial failure. His posterior mitral leaflet does not move normally. Mild mitral vale regurgitation is present.. It just kept going on and on.

At this point, I was just angry. I couldn’t believe that he was actually this sick. DCM does not typically occur in golden retrievers. By now, I am sure you’ve seen some of the research going on about grain-free diets, specifically with those high in legumes, and the link to heart disease in dogs, with an increase in golden retrievers. Thankfully, I had seen Barley’s post and thought I should double check to make sure he was okay. Unfortunately, he was not okay like we had hoped. I had read up on the research that UC Davis is doing on this link to heart disease, and of course Holden had been eating the one food the main researcher said to avoid, for over 2 and a half years.

Holden’s labs have been sent off to UC Davis to confirm if he has a taurine deficiency. This is very important because it will confirm if it is related to the diet Holden was eating. The lead researcher at UC Davis told Morris Animal Foundation said, “I suspect that golden retrievers might have something in their genetic make-up that makes them less efficient at making taurine,” said Dr. Stern. “Couple that with certain diets, and you’ve given them a double hit. If you feed them a diet that has fewer building blocks for taurine or a food component that inhibits this synthesis, they pop up with DCM.” If Holden has low taurine levels, then we will know his diagnosis is linked to the diet he was on.

Here I was thinking I was helping him by giving him a food that he was not allergic to (he is allergic to #allthethings… chicken, beef, duck, etc.), when in reality, this is most likely what was slowly killing him. Luckily, due to the power of social media, I came across what what happening to other goldens and took action. Instagram saved my dog’s life.

We are not in the clear yet, however. Holden started his five medications last night, including the diuretic to help get the pooled blood out of his chest cavity. We don’t know how long he may have to be on this medication. Forever? Maybe. We don’t know, and we won’t know until we see how he is doing. We have an appointment with the cardiologist in two weeks to see where his levels are and to see if his heart is working any better. Prayers are greatly appreciated.

In the meantime, Holden is going to get SO much love. He already has heard from thousands from around the world who are praying for him, sending good vibes and thoughts, and simply those who want to tell him they love him. Now with his shaved chest, belly rubs feel even better to him, so you know he is already getting so many. Thank you to everyone for all of your kind messages. They have meant so much to us.

If you are concerned about your dog’s diet or health, I highly recommend chatting with your veterinarian. Holden’s life was truly saved by me simply being the crazy dog mom that I am and listening to my gut (even if I just saw it on Instagram!). Feel free to share Holden’s story, as we want to help prevent any other families from going through what we have gone through the past few days and what we will have to face in the future.

There are several people and places that I just have to thank for saving Holden’s life: Dr. Anderson and her team over at The Animal Hospital of Carrboro, Veterinary Specialist Hospital of the Carolinas – Durham, PetsBest Pet Insurance (I truly did not have to worry about financials through all of this thanks to having pet insurance!), @Scoutgoldenretriever and @barley.and.stella, Barley’s mom’s blog about their story with DCM, my friends and family who trusted me through this and supported our decisions, and ALL of Holden’s Instagram family. We are so thankful.


With lots of love for HTG,

Caroline, Holden’s Dog Mom

10 responses to “One Big Heart”

  1. Morgan Avatar

    What brand of food has Holden been eating?

    1. Holden the Golden Avatar
      Holden the Golden

      He was on Acana pork and squash, which is high in legumes, which seems to be the problem.

  2. Vivian johnson Avatar
    Vivian johnson

    Praying for Holden I’ve so enjoyed his adventures I have my dogs all 5 on grain free how do you find out what is good for them I’m guessing the Vet

    1. Holden the Golden Avatar
      Holden the Golden

      Hi there! Thanks so much! I would talk to your veterinarian about what food is best for your babies 💛

    2. Hedy Bastian Avatar
      Hedy Bastian

      You can also check the FB page for Taurine Deficient Dilated Cardiomyopathy and join that group or a similar group for Goldens both maintain a spreadsheet of the dogs that have been tested for taurine levels or had an echo and the food they were fed. Acana and Orijen both made by Champion Pet Foods have many sick dogs on the table. They are one of the worst offenders. Definitely check your vet and make sure they are aware of the grain free food issue (legumes and potatoes).

      1. Holden the Golden Avatar
        Holden the Golden

        Thank you!! Joined the group this weekend.

  3. Babs Avatar

    I’m so sorry to hear about Holden. He stole my heart the first time I saw him on fb. I had a Chow Chow who was diagnosed with lymphoma. One of the worst days of my life. I just couldn’t do enough for my Bisquit knowing he only had months to live.
    I know Holden is not out of the woods, but he’s strong, happy and has so very many people praying for him. His work is not done on this earth. He has a lot more to give. I am praying for Holden for a speedy recovery and for you and Sophie to hang in there. Please give Holden and Sophie hugs and kisses from me! 🙏💛🐶🙏

    1. Holden the Golden Avatar
      Holden the Golden

      Thank you so so much! That is so sweet. I agree that Holden’s work is not done. We are going to do all we can to keep him the happiest pup 💛 thanks for your sweet words!

  4. Summer G. Avatar
    Summer G.

    What type of dog food was Holden on? I checked my truck ingredients in my Golden’s food and the only grain listed is corn grain 🤔 However is says nothing about being “grain free” what affordable gain free dog foods would you recommend for a 7 month old golden?

    1. Holden the Golden Avatar
      Holden the Golden

      Holden was on Acana Pork and Squash, which is really high in legumes, which seem to be the problem! I would chat with your veterinarian about the best food for your pup!

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