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The Broken Hearts Club (Heart Disease In Dogs & Cats)

There are many different causes and treatments for each heart condition that affects dogs and cats.

Canine heart

Canine heart

In dogs, the most often seen forms of heart disease are valve malformations (dysplasias), valve narrowing (stenosis), abnormal openings between the heart chambers (septal defects), a blood vessel not fully forming during development (patent ductus arteriosus), leaky valves (mitral insufficiency), and heart failure (the muscles simply stop working).

In cats, heart diseases most often diagnosed in cats are thickened heart muscles (hypertrophic cardiomyopathy), heartworm infestations, and heart failure.

The best thing that people can do to minimize heart disease in their companion animals is to make sure they have thorough, annual checkups so the veterinarian can catch heart disease as early as possible. The next best thing people can do is to keep their dogs and cats away from stressful situations.

Jump to: Symptoms of heart disease || Causes & risk factors of heart disease || Diagnosing heart disease ||Managing & treating heart disease || Diet & heart disease || Select sources

What are the symptoms of heart disease?

Animals with mild heart disease often show no symptoms at all and the disease may progress slowly for years before people notice any signs of heart problems. Sometimes symptoms are never seen and it’s only during autopsy that people find out their pet had a heart condition.

Common symptoms of heart problems in dogs and cats include:

  • Lethargy, fatigue, or muscle weakness. Animals may show less interest in playing, running, or walking.
  • Chronic cough, which may be more obvious at night, first thing in the morning, when they’re excited, or during physical activity.
  • Difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, or rapid breathing – especially after physical activity.
  • Heart murmurs, which are often detected during a veterinarian’s annual physical exam.
  • Blue-looking gums.
  • Decreased appetite and weight loss.
  • Distended abdomens caused by fluid build-up.
  • Sudden paralysis of hind legs.

If you see any of these symptoms in your companion, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian as soon as possible. Heart disease is easier to treat when it’s detected early.

What are the causes and risk factors of heart disease?

Some forms of heart disease are genetic, while others develop over the course of a lifetime. Heart disease can be a result of depressed immune systems, genetic defects, or even poor diets. It is sometimes a secondary problem to infection, kidney failure, or hyperthyroidism.

The following factors increase the likelihood of heart problems developing or getting worse:

  • Breed. The following breeds of cats are predisposed to heart disease: Maine Coons, Persians, Ragdoll, and Siamese. The breeds of dogs that are at increased risk are Miniature Poodles, Toy Poodles, Teacup Poodles, Miniature Schnauzers, Chihuahuas, Fox Terriers, Cocker Spaniels, Boston Terriers, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Boxers, and Doberman Pinschers.
  • Diet. For cats, a lack of adequate taurine has been linked to cardiomyopathy. High quality commercial cat foods include added taurine. Dog food does not have extra taurine, so feeding dog food to cats can lead to heart disease. See the section below for additional information about nutrition and heart disease.
  • Age. Older pets are more likely to suffer from heart disease.
  • Gender. Male dogs have an increased chance of developing heart disease.
  • Bacterial or viral infection, including chronic skin infections.
  • Thyroid disease.
  • Kidney failure.
  • Obesity. Heart disease progresses faster in overweight animals.
  • Lack of exercise. The heart muscle needs exercise to stay healthy and strong.
  • Dental disease.


feline-dilatedcardiomyopathyHow are heart diseases diagnosed?

Diagnosing heart problems includes doing a physical exam, a full cardiac blood workup, and also diagnostic tests such as x-rays, ultrasound echocardiograms, electrocardiograms (EKG), or radiographs. These tests reveal the exact heart condition an animal has and how advanced the disease is.

Most veterinarians do additional tests to check for underlying diseases, such as hyperthyroidism or kidney failure.

How are heart diseases managed and treated?

Treatment and management of heart disease depends on the specific diagnosis and whether an animal has additional health concerns. Veterinarians will design an individualized treatment plan for each particular companion.

Managing and treating heart disease is most effective when treatment plans include pharmaceutical, nutritional, and also alternative or complementary medicine treatments.

There are two goals when treating heart disease in dogs and cats: improved or alleviated symptoms and slowed progression of disease. The best way to know whether a treatment is working is by keeping an eye on symptoms, both at home and during veterinary exams.

Medications that are commonly prescribed for pets with heart conditions are diuretics (such as furosemide and spironolactone), ACE inhibitors (such as enalapril and benazepril), inodilators (such as pimobendan), cardiotonic glycosides (such as Digoxin), calcium channel blockers (such as diltiazem), and beta blockers (such as atenolol or propanolol). Nitroglycerin and digoxin are also sometimes prescribed.

Animals with heart failure have fluid-filled areas in their chests or abdomens that are drained manually by veterinarians.

Heart surgery is rarely performed on pets, but can be a treatment option for some heart conditions.

It’s important to keep animals with heart disease away from stressful situations and they should not be exposed to extreme heat. Dogs and cats with heart problems have difficulty tolerating stress and their hearts can easily give out when they’re stressed by car travel, heat, grooming, and veterinary procedures.

How does diet affect heart disease?

Most treatment plans for companion animals with heart problems include heart-healthy dietary changes to help slow the progression of the disease. These include:

  • Switching to low sodium diets.
  • Offering foods with ingredients that are rich in essential fatty acids (such as venison, freshwater eel / unagi, brushtail, kangaroo) and antioxidants (like cranberries, blueberries, seaweed).
  • Feeding high quality, healthy foods.
  • Maintaining a healthy weight.
  • Supplying raw bones as treats.

cat-with-heart-markingChoosing foods that include – or adding supplements to provide – the following also benefits heart health:

  • Antioxidants, such as grape seed extract, co-enzyme Q10 (CoQ10), hawthorn, selenium, beta carotene, and vitamins A, C, and E
  • Essential fatty acids (particularly Omega 3 and 6), like those found in fish oil, flaxseed oil, and canola oil
  • Amino acids, such as L-carnitine and taurine
  • Magnesium
  • Kelp
  • Arnica montana
  • Kalium phosphate
  • Calcium fluoride

Work with your veterinarian or a veterinary nutritionist to talk about the ideal diet for an individual animal.

(Note: Nonexclusive use of this article has been granted to other pet industry organizations but Kari Kells retains copyright.)

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