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The Heart of the Matter: Cardiac Disease in Pets

Photo: Courtesy of Joe Caione

Understanding what heart disease symptoms to look for in your pet and how to ensure early detection will help in diagnosing and treating it.

Steven-Rosenthal-DVM-CVCA Cardiac-Care-for-Pets

Steven Rosenthal, DVM

President and Veterinary Cardiologist, CVCA Cardiac Care for Pets

About 1 in 10 dogs and 1 in 6 cats will develop heart disease in their lifetime. Understanding what symptoms to look for and how to ensure early detection are the best tools pet owners can have in diagnosing and treating heart disease.

The most commonly diagnosed heart disease in dogs is the degeneration of the heart valves. It can affect close to 2 out of every 3 dogs under 30 pounds by the time they are 10 years of age.  Over time, the leak in the mitral valve leads to heart enlargement and may ultimately result in congestive heart failure.

In large breed dogs as well as in cats, the most common cardiac conditions result from a problem with the heart muscle called cardiomyopathy. Some forms of cardiomyopathy are genetic and could help direct more aggressive screening in certain pets so that these conditions can be diagnosed early, even in pets that don’t yet show any symptoms. However, cardiomyopathy can present in many shapes and sizes of pets.

Heart disease symptoms

Pets are very good at hiding early signs of heart disease. As your pet’s health advocate, it’s important to recognize the symptoms and to seek treatment quickly. Once signs of disease are present, the heart issue is often advanced. 

The most common heart disease symptoms include tiring easily with physical activity, breathing with more effort, a faster breathing rate at rest, and/or the onset of a cough. In some cases, episodes of weakness or collapse can develop, or the belly can be swollen due to fluid retention. The most severe cases can result in sudden death.

Early detection and treatment

With early detection and diagnosis, many heart disease conditions can be treatable. Primary care veterinarians in combination with veterinary cardiologists can formulate treatment plans that can help slow the anticipated heart disease progression. 

Some pets with heart disease are born with malformations in their heart that can be managed with medications or, in some cases, surgery. A treatment plan can be highly effective at managing the progression of the disease and sustaining a good quality of life for your pet.

The role of diet

While the pet’s diet is not commonly the cause of the heart disease, certain types of diets have been associated with some life-threatening heart conditions. Once heart disease has developed, dietary changes can help fine-tune the treatment plan. Diet considerations include minimizing salt intake, ensuring adequate protein and potassium consumption, and supplementing certain types of fats.  

Unlike heart disease in people, poor diet and nutrition are usually not the cause of heart disease. However, maintaining optimal body condition is still recommended for all pets. With the use of a quality balanced diet that accounts for the pet’s heart condition, nutritional supplements are often not necessary.

Prevention and proactive care

Preventative therapies such as heartworm protection, prescribed by primary care veterinarians, can prevent the life-threatening parasites of your pet’s heart and lungs.

Regular annual examinations with your primary care veterinarian are highly recommended for all pets. During these routine physical examinations, your veterinarian can assess for heart disease signs including heart murmurs, abnormal heart sounds, and irregular heartbeats, among others. Sometimes a blood test can be a helpful tool in the early diagnosis, too. 

Some dog and cat breeds have a higher incidence for heart disease. Some of these include, but are not limited to, Doberman Pinschers, Boxers, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Chihuahuas, Maine Coons, and Ragdoll cats. For pets of any breed at risk of cardiac disease — or where there is a family history of heart disease in your pet — twice yearly examinations are recommended, especially in middle-aged to senior pets.

Collaborative care approach

Once a condition is identified, your veterinarian can work with veterinary cardiologists to create a treatment plan. The plan may entail more defined diagnostic tests such as blood testing, electrocardiograms, chest x-rays, blood pressure evaluations, an echocardiogram, or a Holter monitor.

Medications can be very helpful in slowing the advancement of heart disease, reducing the severity of present symptoms and prolonging your pet’s life. Medications are commonly prescribed long-term, often for the duration of the pet’s life.

Early detection and proactive care are the best tools for owners of pets with heart disease. With early detection, heart disease is more treatable and you can improve the outlook and quality of life of your pet companion.

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