Just like humans, pets can suffer from a variety of heart conditions. While not entirely preventable, there are lifestyle measures you can take to promote good heart health in your pet. Today, our Bakersfield vets share advice for keeping your pet's heart healthy and signs they may be dealing with a heart-related issue.
Tips for Good Heart Health
- Maintain a healthy weight: Being overweight can increase your pet's chances of suffering from a heart condition.
- Feed your pet a balanced diet: A balanced and nutritious diet can help your pet maintain their optimal weight and ensure they are getting all the nutrients they need to stay healthy.
- Regular wellness checks: Routine exams allow your vet to catch any emerging heart conditions early while they are still the most treatable.
- Provide dental care: Poor oral hygiene and gingivitis have been linked to heart disease in both humans and pets. Bring your pet to the vet for annual dental cleanings and practice good at-home oral healthcare.
- Frequent Exercise: Adequate exercise, including cardio (such as running), helps keep your dog or cat's heart healthy. You should aim to walk your dog every day and provide ample playtime for both cats and dogs.
- Parasite Preventives: Heartworm disease accounts for over 10% of heart disease in pets. Protect your pet from heartworm and other parasitic diseases that can damage the heart by making sure your pet's parasite preventives are up to date.
- Be aware of breed-related conditions: Some breeds are predisposed to heart conditions. Knowing what risk your breed faces can help you monitor them for any emerging conditions. In cats, Maine Coons, Persians, and Siamese cats are known for having heart problems, while dog breeds such as Cavalier King Charles spaniels, Boston terriers, and Chihuahuas are prone to heart disease.
Signs Your Pet May Have Heart Disease
The following symptoms could indicate that your pet is suffering from a condition or disease related to the heart. If you notice any of the following you should make an appointment with your vet right away:
- Dry coughing post-exercise
- Coughing at night
- Shortness of breath
- Fatigue or fainting spells
- Rapid, unexplained weight loss
- Pale gums
- Swollen abdomen
- Decreased appetite
- Lethargy or depression
What are some of the most common heart diseases in pets?
Your cat or dog’s heart, which is anatomically similar to a human heart, is composed of four chambers—two on each side—with valves that open and close to regulate blood flow. Valves are situated between each upper chamber (i.e., the atria) and lower chamber (i.e., the ventricle), and at the exit from each lower chamber. As pets age, their heart valves can deteriorate to the point where they no longer close completely, and their blood fails to flow in the right direction.
Degenerative mitral valve disease (DMVD) is the most common type of valvular degeneration to affect dogs. As dogs age, the mitral valve—the valve separating the left atria from the left ventricle—thickens and becomes weaker, allowing a small amount of blood to flow backward through the valve with each heartbeat. This backward flow of blood is called mitral valve regurgitation. As mitral valve regurgitation increases, progressive heart enlargement can occur, and dogs become at risk of developing congestive heart failure (CHF). DMVD typically affects older, small-breed dogs. Most dogs have mild disease, but approximately 30% may experience more severe disease that requires lifelong management. DMVD is often diagnosed when your family veterinarian detects a left-sided heart murmur during a routine physical exam. The VetMED cardiology team will then assess the severity of your pet’s valvular degeneration, and formulate a treatment plan that will successfully manage the condition.
Dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM)
DCM is a family of diseases in dogs that results in the weakening of the heart muscle. As a result, less blood is pumped out of the heart with each heartbeat, causing the walls to stretch and the chambers to dilate, or become larger, placing dogs at risk of developing CHF. DCM most often affects large- and giant-breed dogs, with some breeds at higher risk, including:
- Doberman Pinschers
- Great Danes
Unfortunately, naturally occurring DCM is irreversible and progressive. With a prompt diagnosis and our cardiology team’s expertise, we can prolong symptom-free life, improving your beloved companion’s quality of life.
DCM has received recent attention due to a potential link to grain-free pet diets. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is investigating an increased incidence of DCM in dogs, and diets that use an alternate carbohydrate source appear to be one of the common factors. The investigation is ongoing, and the FDA has not yet established the exact cause of DCM in these apparent diet-related cases. Consultation with a member of our cardiology team can help determine whether or not your pet has DCM and what diet would be the best for them.
Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM)
HCM, which is the most commonly diagnosed heart disease in cats, results from abnormal thickening of the left ventricular muscle, which decreases the ventricle’s ability to relax and accept blood. As a result, the pressure within the heart increases, causing dilation of the heart, and increased risk of CHF development. Blood flow can become sluggish, increasing the risk of blood clot formation. Blood clots that form in the heart may leave and cause blockages, most commonly in the back legs.
Unfortunately, cats are masters at hiding illness, and HCM is often silent. Cats rarely show symptoms until CHF develops, or a clot blocks blood flow to their back legs, causing sudden, intense pain, and possible paralysis. Regular physical exams are particularly important in cats, so your family veterinarian can screen for heart disease signs. If your family veterinarian suspects that your cat may have HCM, the VetMED cardiology team can perform a cardiac workup to determine if the disease is present and if medications are indicated. Although HCM is not curable, many affected cats live their entire lives without developing CHF or blood clots, with proper disease management.
Heart arrhythmiasEach of your pet’s heartbeats is initiated and controlled by an electrical impulse that travels through the heart muscle. Each impulse begins in the top part of the heart, and travels through a specialized conduction pathway, causing a coordinated heart contraction. If these electrical impulses fail to initiate properly, follow the correct pathway, or move through the entire conduction system, an abnormal heart rhythm (i.e., arrhythmia) may develop. Common arrhythmias in pets include:
- Tachycardia, or an increased heart rate
- Bradycardia, or a decreased heart rate
- Premature ventricular contractions
- Heart block
- Atrial fibrillation
Congenital Heart DiseaseCongenital heart diseases, which result from abnormal heart development, and are present from birth, account for approximately 3% to 5% of the cases our cardiology service sees every year. These diseases are typically diagnosed when your family veterinarian detects a heart murmur during your puppy or kitten’s exam. A prompt ultrasound of the heart, performed by our cardiology team, can help us determine which congenital heart disease is present, so we can provide the best treatment recommendations before the disease progresses. Common congenital heart diseases include:
- Patent ductus arteriosus (PDA)
- Pulmonic stenosis
- Subaortic stenosis
- Ventricular septal defect (VSD)
Diagnosing & Treating Heart Disease
If you bring your pet to the vet because they are displaying signs of heart disease, your vet will probably begin by doing a thorough examination of your furry companion, including looking for irregularities with their heartbeat and listening for fluid in their lungs. If your vet suspects your pet is suffering from a heart condition, they will most likely refer you to a board-certified veterinary cardiologist.
A veterinary cardiologist will run further diagnostic testing on your pet and then will assess the situation to determine what your treatment options are.
Treatment options can range from medications to surgery. Depending on the condition your vet cardiologist may also recommend supplements or lifestyle changes, such as the ones mentioned above. If lifestyle changes are necessary, your pet's cardiologist can guide you with the specifics, such as how much exercise is appropriate and what the best diet is for your pet.
Note: The advice provided in this post is intended for informational purposes and does not constitute medical advice regarding pets. For an accurate diagnosis of your pet's condition, please make an appointment with your vet.