Heart disease in various forms is quite common in dogs and cats. In fact, veterinarians frequently diagnose patients with heart murmurs, arrhythmias, congestive heart failure and enlarged hearts, just to name a few.
Heart disease in pets can be due to congenital defects (such as a hole in the heart), age-related change (a thickened valve that becomes leaky), problems with the heart muscle itself, heart-worms living in the vessels around the heart or the heart itself, or even be secondary to an unrelated problem that causes changes in hormone levels or electrolytes.
It is interesting to note that, unlike people, cats and dogs rarely have high cholesterol or triglycerides as the underlying cause of their heart disease, and rarely have true “heart attacks.”
The first step in diagnosing heart disease is obtaining a full history, as often there are clinical signs that may be noted at home even before the pet comes in for a full exam. These include:
- Elevated resting respiratory rate
- Persistent coughing and/or difficulty breathing
- Decreased exercise tolerance or energy in general
- Collapsing or fainting episodes
- Decreased appetite
- Distended abdomen
Other symptoms that may not be apparent at home, but can be picked up by your pet’s veterinarian, include:
- Irregular heartbeat / arrhythmia
- Heart murmur (the sound of turbulent blood flow through the heart)
- Lung sounds that may indicate fluid build-up in or around the lungs
- Signs of poor oxygenation such as discolored gums
- Fluid build-up in the abdomen
- Abnormal blood pressure
Because pets are very good at “hiding” their heart disease, it is not unusual that they can be seemingly asymptomatic for a long period of time and then quite quickly develop severe symptoms of heart disease such as coughing, respiratory distress, or collapsing episodes. This is especially true in cats, as they are well-known for showing very few symptoms of heart disease until their disease is quite advanced.
If your pet is diagnosed with a heart murmur or arrhythmia on routine physical exam additional testing may be recommended. This may include bloodwork to look for underlying metabolic or electrolyte abnormalities, chest x-rays to evaluate the shape and size of the heart and to further evaluate the lungs for evidence of fluid build-up, and/or an EKG to diagnose an abnormal rhythm.
In some cases, referral to a veterinary cardiologist may be indicated. Veterinary cardiologists have special training in diagnosing and treating heart-related conditions.
One of the most important tests they perform is an echocardiogram, or ultrasound of the heart. This allows visualization of the structure of the heart muscle and valves, as well as flow of blood through the heart. This is a specialized test not routinely performed by most family veterinarians, but provides very valuable information about the underlying cause of the symptoms and can help us more effectively manage the heart disease.
Studies have shown that pets in congestive heart failure may live up to 75 percent longer when co-managed by a veterinary cardiologist and their primary veterinarian.
We are fortunate in the Northern Virginia/D.C. metropolitan area to have one of the country’s premier veterinary cardiology groups nearby – Chesapeake Veterinary Cardiology Associates. Their website is a wealth of information for any pet parent whose furry friend has been diagnosed with heart disease.
When caught early, most heart disease conditions in our pets can be managed,and some for quite a long time. If your pet is experiencing any of the symptoms above please consult with your family veterinarian for further evaluation. If your pet has been diagnosed with a heart condition, additional resources and educational material can be found with the links below.