Studies show heart disease is surprisingly common in pets, with 10% of dogs and 15% of cats affected. In addition, often the disease goes undetected, which diminishes your pet’s quality of life. Most of the time, heart disease in pets stems from a genetic predisposition. That’s just one reason our team at Town and Country Animal Hospital recommends an annual preventive exam for your pet. With regular annual exams, heart disease can be detected and treated early. Your veterinarian can also discuss what signs of heart disease to look for and what you can do as a pet owner to prevent it. 

The beating heart

Your pet’s heart is anatomically similar to your own heart. It has four chambers that pump blood and four valves that ensure blood flows in the proper direction. 

A dog’s normal heart rate depends on their size. Puppies and small dogs have heart rates of 140 to 160 beats per minute, while dogs that weigh more than 30 pounds have a normal heart rate of 60 to 120 beats per minute. The larger the dog, the slower their resting heart rate will be. A cat’s heart rate is typically between 140 and 220 beats per minute, and will be slower when they are at rest.  

Types of heart disease in pets

Because pets generally eat a low fat-diet, they are not usually susceptible to heart attacks or atherosclerosis, which is caused by a buildup of plaque in the arteries. More typically, heart disease in pets is acquired or congenital, meaning it has been present since they were born. Here are some common types of heart disease in pets:

  • Dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) — DCM affects the cardiac muscle and causes it to weaken and stretch, which reduces the heart’s ability to pump blood effectively.
  • Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) — HCM is the most common form of heart disease in cats. With HCM, the heart wall thickens, and the size of the heart chamber decreases. This means the heart cannot pump a normal volume of blood, resulting in poor oxygenation.
  • Congestive heart failure (CHF)  — Congestive heart failure can be caused by any heart disease that interferes with the heart’s ability to provide adequate blood flow. If DCM or HCM go undiagnosed and untreated, they can progress to CHF. In CHF, blood flow backs up in the vessels, causing higher pressure than they can support, and the fluid leaks into the lungs and abdomen.
  • Heartworm disease — Heartworm is the most common form of heart disease in pets, accounting for 13% of heart disease in dogs. Heartworm is an acquired heart disease, caused by the bite of infected mosquitoes. Although it can be treated, heartworm is entirely preventable. Keeping your pet on year-round heartworm prevention medication is the best way to ensure they never develop this kind of heart disease.
  • Pulmonic stenosis — Pulmonic stenosis is a congenital heart disease caused by a heart defect, which obstructs blood flow from the right ventricle of the heart to the pulmonary artery, and can interfere with blood flow between the heart and the lungs. Among the breeds commonly affected by pulmonic stenosis are bulldogs, Boston terriers, boxers, Jack Russell terriers, Samoyeds, Newfoundlands, and Labrador retrievers. 

Signs of heart disease in pets

Heart disease in pets is often progressive, and symptoms may take time to develop. This is another reason you should ensure your pet has an annual preventive care exam. Often, when listening to your pet’s heart, your veterinarian can detect small changes that might indicate heart disease. They can then treat the problem early, before the heart disease advances. 

Some signs of heart disease include:

  • Restlessness at night
  • Dry cough that increases after physical activity or at night
  • Shortness of breath
  • Rapid weight loss
  • Fainting
  • Ascites, or a “potbelly” appearance, which is caused by fluid buildup
  • Rapid tiring or fatigue

If you notice any of these signs in your pet, call our veterinary team  to schedule an appointment.

Diagnosing heart disease in pets

Often, veterinarians can detect early signs of heart disease during an annual preventive care exam. Our veterinarians may recommend one or more of the following procedures or tests to confirm a diagnosis of heart disease, and to determine how far the disease has advanced:

  • Chest X-rays
  • Cardiac ultrasound
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG)
  • Blood and urine tests

Treating heart disease in pets

If your pet does have heart disease, your veterinarian will likely prescribe medication as part of their treatment plan. Different types of heart disease require different medications, however, and possibly other treatments as well. 

Often, pets with heart disease require lifelong medication. In that case, their medication will have to be adjusted periodically as the disease progresses. Sometimes this means a higher dose of medication, and sometimes new drugs will be added to your pet’s treatment regimen. 

Preventing heart disease in pets

Although some forms of heart disease cannot be prevented, others can be, and you can take some steps to help your pet. For example, nutrition tailored to your pet can help slow the progression of heart disease, minimize the need for medications, and improve their quality of life. Our veterinary team can provide you with an appropriate  diet recommendation. In addition, ensure that any home-cooked diets you feed your pet are formulated and evaluated by a board-certified veterinary nutritionist. 

Heartworm disease can be prevented with a monthly chewable, or with an injection that can be administered in our office. Our veterinarians can tell you which of these products would be best for your pet. 

The team at Town and Country Animal Hospital is here to help you keep your pet healthy and happy. Give us a call or schedule an appointment so we can ensure your pet is by your side for a long time to come.