- Heart problems are very common
- Heart disease is hard to recognise
- If heart failure isn’t treated early, it may not go as well
Just like with so many other illnesses, dogs and cats don’t advertise the fact that their hearts aren’t working properly.
What Causes Heart Failure?
Sometimes a puppy or kitten’s valve doesn’t form properly (mitral or tricuspid valve dysplasia), other times it gets misshapen with age (acquired mitral insufficiency). Either way, some blood flows backwards into the atrium instead of forwards into the arteries when the heart ventricle contracts.
Sometimes a puppy can be born with a narrowing of a valve (aortic or pulmonic stenosis) which causes a partial obstruction to blood flow.
Heart muscle defects
Large breed dogs and Maine Coon or Ragdoll cats can develop a problem where the heart muscle gets thinner and the heart itself enlarges like a balloon (dilated cardiomyopathy) like in Kira’s story.
Most heart problems in cats are caused by an enlargement and thickening of the heart muscle (hypertrophic cardiomyopathy). This prevent the heart filling and emptying properly.
Arrhythmias are less common as a cause of heart disease; here’s the only dog we’ve seen that needed a pacemaker. Rhythm problems are very common as a complication to a heart already in failure due to other causes.
Other Heart Problems
There’s no end of rare causes as well. We recently saw a dog with cardiac tamponade secondary to a pericardial effusion but that’s one of only two in the past ten years.
What Happens In Heart Failure?
Regardless of the cause, the end result is much the same: there is a drop in cardiac output and arterial blood pressure. This means the body is poorly supplied with nutrients and especially oxygen.
There’s often also an abnormal buildup of pressure in the veins leading to the heart. Veins leak under high pressure and so fluid starts escaping into the tissues and spaces. Fluid can be in the lungs (pulmonary oedema), around the lungs (pleural effusion), in the abdomen (ascites) or under the skin (oedema).
The Signs Of Heart Problems In Dogs
How do you know when your dog has a failing heart? Symptoms may include:
- Slowing down during walks or play
- A cough often heard at night
- Retching up white foam
- A swollen belly
- Rapid or laboured breathing
- Sudden dizziness or collapse
- Blueish or pale gums
Importantly, not all dogs will show even the most common clues.
The Signs Of Heart Problems In Cats
It’s much trickier to tell when a cat has heart issues. Loss of fitness is almost impossible to detect in a cat. Cats also have smaller lung volumes and so are much more sensitive to pulmonary oedema and pleural effusion. They can go from seeming normal to a full blown emergency in the time it takes to get to the vet.
There are still some clues though:
- Sleeping more
- Rapid respiration (over 30 breaths per minute)
- Open mouth breathing when agitated
Surprisingly, while heart disease is always serious, change occurs slowly. Dogs and cats almost never suffer from heart attacks.
For both dogs and cats the key is to get regular checkups; read about a cat’s lucky heart checkup here. Most heart problems can be easily heard by an experienced vet months to years before any drama.
Treatment of Heart Failure
First, we need a diagnosis. That may require a combination of examination and auscultation, special blood tests, X-rays, ultrasound and ECG. There’s usually both a ‘gold standard’ approach and a ‘medicine on a budget’ approach depending on client needs.
Treatments then include:
- Pimobendan (in Vetmedin™, Fortekor Plus™)
- ACE Inhibitors (in Fortekor™, generic benazepril, Enalfor™)
- Diuretics (frusemide & spironolactone mainly)
- Antiarrhythmics (there are many depending on the problem; digoxin is used for supra ventricular tachycardia for example)
- Fish oil (small benefit)
- Sodium restriction
For each patient, it’s a case of carefully balancing the effects of each drug, monitoring the results carefully and being prepared for change.
Expected Response to Treatment of Heart Failure
Responses vary a lot. Some dogs & cats seem to get back to their normal lives, others don’t respond adequately at all. However, for most animals (we’ve also treated rabbits and ferrets with heart failure) we can offer them a return to a good quality of life.
We expect to be able to get your dog wanting to go for a walk again, and cats to seem perfectly normal around the house. From then on, some pets stay well for many years, whereas others slowly worsen, requiring dose adjustments to keep them happy.
If we can’t keep your beloved pet happy, you have our guarantee that we’re not going to push further treatment.