Atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) is a cardiovascular and fibroproliferative inflammatory disease commonly associated with age- and dietary-related factors in humans, but is relatively rare in dogs.
In dogs, which have markedly shorter life spans compared to humans, atherosclerosis does occur but usually secondary to chronic inflammatory diseases such as periodontitis, hypothyroidism, diabetes mellitus, hyperlipidemia, hypercholesterolemia and dyspnea associated with obesity or brachycephalic syndrome.
The disease usually occurs systemically, affecting the brain, spinal cord, heart, spleen, kidneys, lungs, pancreas, alimentary tract, urogenital organs, eyes, prostate and urinary bladder.
Originally thought to develop as an 'inside-out' process, where atheromas form in the intima and work their way outward into the adventitia, atherosclerosis in now considered to develop in an 'outside-in' fashion, where vessel wall inflammation begins in the adventitia and works its way into the media and intima. Regardless, atherosclerosis is characterized by thickening of the tunica media/interna of arterial walls, associated with lipid deposition. Smooth muscle and lipid-filled macrophages known as foam cells proliferate in the tunica media/interna, and a fibrous plaque forms around a core of lipid (atheroma).
In dogs, advanced glycation end products appear critical to atheroma formation. These adhesive glycoprotein normally support hemostasis by mediating platelet adhesion to injured vessel surfaces and are implicated as critical in atheroma formation. In dogs with von Willebrand's disease, atherosclerosis has been shown not to occur, implicating adhesive glycoproteins in the development of canine atherosclerosis.
There are numerous reports linking an association between Helicobacter pylori and Chlamydophila psittaci infection and human coronary atherosclerosis, but these infectious agents do not appear to be incriminated in atherosclerosis in dogs.
The primary complications of atherosclerosis are thromboembolism, increased risk of cataract formation (due to hyperlipidemia) and central and/or peripheral neuropathology. Thromboembolism, which can trigger rupture or damage of lipid-rich coronary plaques, is less common in dogs compared with humans.
The most significant consequence of atherosclerosis is peripheral and/or central nervous ischemia and compression caused by myxedematous deposits. This invariably leads to peripheral polyneuropathy and/or central cognitive deficit syndrome.
Dogs that develop atherosclerosis have increased lipoprotein levels, primarily in the β and α2 low density lipoproteins, which predisposes to increased microvascular ischemia and blood viscosity, putting dogs at risk of thromboembolic episodes.
Correction of underlying inflammatory diseases and use of statins may ameliorate clinical signs, and nutritional supplements may assist management of this condition.
The use of antioxidants (vitamins E and C, fruits and vegetables) and mitochondrial cofactors (e.g. Co-Q10, S-adenosylmethionine, lipoic acid and carnitine) have been shown to significantly improve cognitive function in aged dogs.
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