It is well established that cardiovascular disease is one of the leading causes of illness in humans, but what about our furry companions? Dogs, cats, horses, ferrets and the little guys like hamsters and guinea pigs can all have heart disease too.
How do you know if your loved one has a heart problem? How can it be diagnosed and how can it be treated? This article will outline some of the common heart diseases found in dogs and cats and will give you some basic information so you can best care for your special furry family member.
Heart Disease in Dogs
What are some of the common heart diseases in dogs?
Mitral valve disease- This is when the mitral valve becomes thickened and cannot close correctly. This causes an improper flow of the blood through the heart, making the heart work harder and sometimes leading to congestive heart failure.
Dilated cardiomyopathy- This is when the heart muscle becomes thickened causing the heart to have to work harder to properly pump blood.
Arrhythmias- This is when the heart beat is irregular and causes the blood to flow improperly to the tissues in the body.
Heartworm disease- This parasite (carried by mosquitoes) literally causes worms to lodge into the heart and lungs causing many problems with blood flow and oxygenation to the tissues.
Recently, it was discovered that some of the designer diets (grain free, vegan) can cause cardiomyopathy in dogs.
How can I tell if my dog has heart disease?
Symptoms in dogs can be similar to those in humans. However, like most symptoms of disease in animals, they can sometimes be hard to see. You might notice that your dog tires easily after exercising as the first clue. This can often be mistaken for pain or “just getting old”. As the disease progresses, you might notice a faint cough either after exercise or while resting. Once the disease is severe, difficulty breathing, especially at night, is noted. Sometimes you can see a bloated stomach or significant weakness in the rear quarters as well.
If I suspect heart disease, what should I do?
The first thing your pet needs is an exam by a veterinarian. She or he will listen to your pets heart, feel pulses and measure blood pressure as the first step. A side note: Pets can have high blood pressure just like us. Unfortunately, there are often no outward signs of this, as your pet cannot tell you they have a headache or just feel off.
What will the veterinarian do next?
X-rays of the chest might be needed and are considered to be a basic diagnostic test to correctly identify heart disease. More advanced diagnostic tools might be warranted and these include ECG (electrocardiography) or an echo (echocardiogram).
Sometimes all the testing can feel overwhelming or expensive. Correctly diagnosing the specific type of heart disease is very important, as the treatments vary for different diseases. Remember that your dog can only really show you a few things (being tired, coughing and difficulty breathing). They cannot explain a tightness in their chest or tingling in their feet or feeling dizzy. Veterinarians have to be detectives sometimes and need all the clues tests can give them!
Once I have a diagnosis, what should I expect over time?
This depends greatly on what the diagnosis is. Some diseases require many medications and are more severe, while others carry a good prognosis and do not require any medications. Again, this is why a good exam and some tests are so important as part of caring for your loved one.
What is the treatment for heart disease?
Again, this depends on the disease but the majority of the time treatment involves some lifestyle changes (like weight loss, exercise restriction, diet change) or oral medications such as beta blockers and ACE inhibitors (similar to human heart medications!).
Sometimes your vet might recommend repeated chest x-rays or echos.
Heart Disease in Cats
Cats are tricky (as they often are!). Cats will show no signs of heart disease at all until the disease has progressed significantly. They rarely cough and don’t often go on walks with us, and tend to nap often so it is difficult to tell if they are tired. This is one of the reasons why it is so important that your cat have an exam by a vet at least once a year, even if they seem fine. A heart murmur or high blood pressure can easily be picked up by your vet.
What are some of the common heart diseases in cats?
Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy- this is when the heart muscle becomes very thickened thus affecting the ability to pump blood properly.
Dilated cardiomyopathy- this is when the heart muscle becomes stretched out and thinner so it also cannot pump blood properly
Hypertension (high blood pressure)- this can be caused by other diseases such as kidney failure, hyperthyroidism and diabetes
Please note: All of the questions above regarding dogs above have a similar answer for cats. Again, the big difference between dogs and cats is that cats will not show you any signs of heart disease, so getting them to the vet (even though it can be tough) is so important!
If your loved one has been diagnosed with a heart disease and requires treatment at home due to the severity of the illness, Caring Pathways is here to help you. Please reach out to a team member anytime to get more information about our comfort care options.
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Written By: Dr. Gina Singleton, Caring Pathways Veterinarian
Dr. Gina has worked as a Veterinarian in both Colorado and Maine and was also co-owner of Forever Home, an in home hospice and euthanasia practice in Fort Collins. Gina joined Caring Pathways in September 2020, having just moved back from Maine in August and she is more than excited to have done so. Having been in general practice for so many years, she found that her favorite part of her job was working with senior pets and their human companions. Although the end-of-life decision can be very difficult, she finds that this ultimate act of love that a human can give to their beloved pet is an honor to be a part of. Click here to visit Dr. Gina's full bio.