Heart complaints

Heart Problems - General

hAnimals with heart problems often cough due to a build up of fluid in the lungs and also because the heart often becomes enlarged due to disease and pushes on the windpipe. They often pant or breathe with their mouth open as this is a way of increasing the oxygen in the lungs. They may drink more and because of this wet in the house over night. They will tend to get tired more quickly because the heart is not able to pump blood round to the muscles as well.

When the heart condition progresses, fluid can build up in the abdomen and this can be very uncomfortable. It may also affect breathing as movement of the diaphragm is restricted.

The three most common signs of heart failure in dogs are:

  • lack of energy or lethargy and reluctance to exercise
  • loss of appetite and weight loss
  • coughing or other breathing changes

Owners may not necessarily associate these symptoms with heart disease.

Heart Disease and Heart Failure

The common heart diseases suffered by dogs often lead to heart failure. Dogs will generally suffer what is called Congestive Heart Failure (CHF), a relatively slow worsening of symptoms. However, there have been major advances in veterinary medicine over the years and the outlook for a dog with heart failure is often not as gloomy as it once was. This obviously depends on the specific type of heart disease that is present.

Disease usually starts to affect one part of the heart and goes on to damage other parts. Disease can be acquired (more common) or congenital (less common).

Acquired Disease

Acquired heart diseases are those that a dog acquires during its lifetime, usually as a result of normal wear and tear, infection or injury. Acquired heart disease accounts for 95% of all heart disease seen in dogs and usually appears after they reach middle age.

The earlier heart disease is diagnosed the better. Usually a dog will not show any obvious symptoms until the condition is irreversible.

Congenital Disease

Congenital defects are those that have been present since birth and are comparatively rare. Congenital defects will usually cause the blood flow through the heart to become turbulent, making a distinctive whooshing noise that vets can hear using a stethoscope – this is what is meant by a “heart murmur”. If your dog is diagnosed with heart murmur however, it is not necessarily cause for concern. Sometimes puppies are born with a slight heart murmur which clears up by itself after 4-6 months. A later checkup is advisable to ensure the condition has resolved itself.

Diagnosis & Treatment

Your vet may recommend all or any of the tests we can now do to help decide on the best treatment for your dog – listening to the heart with a stethoscope, blood and urine tests, x-rays of the heart and lungs, and ECG (electrical trace of the heartbeat) and ultrasonography (a real-time picture of how the heart is functioning).

Heart failure is rarely a sudden cessation of the heart’s function, but a slow process which affects almost every part of the body. Unlike the underlying disease, heart failure can often be managed with medication that improve and extend the dog’s life.

A special exercise regime for your dog will also be very important.

Heart Problems - Cats

Heart problems can affect all ages of cats and dogs but tend to be more common in older animals. The cause in young animals is usually congenital which means that the animal is born with the problem. This includes defects such as a hole in the heart and this type of problem will usually be detected by your vet when the puppy or kitten is examined at its first vaccination. The vet will detect a noise called a murmur when listening to the heart with a stethoscope. A murmur develops when blood flows in an abnormal direction causing turbulence and is one of the primary things that vets look for when examining the heart.

Heart problems are much harder to detect in cats compared to dogs. Cats are, by nature, very lazy so the heart is not often put under stress. Accordingly, a heart with problems can usually cope with a cat’s sedentary life-style. This means that the disease is often progressed to a late stage before a problem is detected.

Animals with heart problems often cough due to a build up of fluid in the lungs and also because the heart often becomes enlarged due to disease and pushes on the windpipe. They often pant or breathe with their mouth open as this is a way of increasing the oxygen in the lungs. They may drink more and because of this wet in the house over night. They will tend to get tired more quickly because the heart is not able to pump blood round to the muscles as well.

When the heart condition progresses, fluid can build up in the abdomen and this can be very uncomfortable. It may also affect breathing as movement of the diaphragm is restricted.

Treatment is variable depending on the cause of the heart problem. It usually consists of some form of diuretic to clear excess fluid from the lungs or abdomen. There is also medication available which can reduce the workload on the heart to help it pump blood round the body more easily. However, each case is different and your vet will decide on a suitable combination of medication for each individual case.