Locally-Owned in Oakdale and St. Paul, Minnesota

Early Warning Signs of Heart Problems in Pets

A toy heart with a stethoscope on top of a printed off ECG reading.

If your pet collapses or experiences respiratory distress, these are considered “RED” – or true emergencies – on our Fast Track Triage system. We advise you to seek immediate veterinary care. Please call ahead of your arrival so the veterinary team knows to expect you!

In April of 2024, Rima Kharbush, DVM, DACVIM (Cardiology), one of our board-certified veterinary cardiologists, joined us on Facebook Live to discuss breeds prone to heart disease and early warning signs of heart problems in our dogs and cats. You can watch the Facebook Live video replay here for more in-depth information or review a summary below.

Higher-Risk Breeds 


Small dogs are more likely than large ones to develop heart disease, but this disease can affect any dog. The following breeds are more prone to developing heart disease: 

  • Cavalier King Charles Spaniel 
  • Chihuahua 
  • Bichon Frise 
  • Miniature Poodle 
  • Boxer 
  • Doberman 
  • Great Dane 

Dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) is the most common type of heart disease in dogs.  

Note: Often large breeds are screened regularly, even if they are otherwise healthy, because heart disease can be difficult to detect, and veterinarians want to prevent a pet’s sudden death from undetected heart disease. 


About 10% of all cats get heart disease. Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy is the most common type of heart disease in cats. The following breeds are more prone to developing heart disease 

  • Maine Coon 
  • Persian 
  • Ragdoll 
  • Bengal 

A Cavalier King Charles lying down.

Early Warning Signs of Heart Disease 

Unfortunately, heart disease can be present for quite a while without causing obvious clinical signs. Often, the first indication of any problem is when a veterinarian discovers a heart murmur. As the disease progresses and becomes more advanced, pet parents may notice these clinical signs 

  • Coughing   
  • Exercise intolerance (pet slowing down, having trouble playing, no longer able to go for long walks like they used to) 
  • Difficulty breathing 
  • Collapse or fainting 

Know that these signs don’t necessarily mean your pet has heart disease – they may be due to a variety of causes. Regardless of the cause, if your pet is experiencing any of these symptoms, consult with your family veterinarian.  

A cat on an exam table with a veterinarian holding it.

 Next Steps 

If you are reading this and feel concerned, here’s what we recommend: 

  • If your pet is experiencing abnormal coughing, difficulty breathing, or fainting/collapse episodes, seek immediate veterinary care at your local animal ER.
    • Heart failure causes fluid build-up in your pet’s lungs or belly. Fluid in the lungs will cause difficulty breathing and coughing (in dogs only.)
    • Cats tend not to cough from heart failure, so if your cat is coughing, seek emergency veterinary attention.
    • Remember, if your pet unexpectedly goes into heart failure – no one is to blame! Sometimes, heart disease comes on suddenly. There may not be a warning sign like a murmur.
  • If your pet is otherwise fine in between abnormal episodes but symptoms aren’t improving, see your family veterinarian, urgent care, or your local animal ER. It may not be an “emergency”, but symptoms may still necessitate a same-day appointment.
  • If your pet is experiencing mild clinical signs, make a non-urgent appointment with your family veterinarian to have them listen to your pet’s heart and perform a thorough exam. Your family veterinarian may choose to do x-rays of your pet’s heart; bloodwork may also be indicated.
  • If you know your pet has heart disease, ask your family veterinarian or cardiologist how to monitor your pet’s breathing. Recording the number of breaths when your pet is asleep can sometimes reveal early changes in your pet’s heart health.  

A two photo collage. The first is of Dr. Kharbush examining a cat. The second is of Dr. Kharbush performing an echocardiogram on a dog at Animal Emergency & Referral Center of Minnesota.

Family Vet or Cardiologist?  

Your family veterinarian will perform a: 

  • Physical exam that includes:
    • Listening to your pet’s heart for indications of an abnormal heart rhythm or murmur – which is often the first sign of heart disease.
    • Listening to the lungs 
  • X-rays to show any fluid in the lungs 
  • Bloodwork to screen for heart disease and to provide a full picture of your pet’s current state of health. A blood screening test is also often recommended prior to any procedure that requires anesthesia. 
  • Blood pressure will often worsen with heart disease, but know that readings are not always accurate on pets 

Your board-certified veterinary cardiologist will perform a physical exam, x-rays, bloodwork, and blood pressure like your family veterinarian, as well as 

  • Electrocardiograms (ECG) to watch and interpret the heart rhythm
    • Note: Some family veterinarians may provide an ECG as well.  
  • Echocardiograms, which are an ultrasound of the heart, and the main reason pets visit a cardiologist! An echocardiogram is a painless procedure. Gel is applied to your pet’s chest and an ultrasound probe glides across to capture images of the heart. There is no shaving and typically, no sedation is required. Technicians will restrain the pet while providing head pats and treats! 
    • An x-ray can only show the outside of the heart, but an echocardiogram can show 
      • Heart function 
      • Different chambers of the heart 
      • Heart valves 
      • Blood flow 
      • Obstructions or holes in the heart (if applicable)  

Treatment & Management  

In most cases, your pet’s heart disease won’t go away. With medication, however, the progression of many heart conditions can be slowed, and onset of heart failure can be delayed.  If your family veterinarian detects issues with your pet’s heart, it’s important to follow up with a veterinary cardiologist to determine if medication may be helpful. We know heart disease can be very alarming, but it’s better to start managing the condition as early as possible. Once heart failure sets in, your pet’s heart health will be more challenging to manage.   

Doberman happily lying in the grass

If your dog or cat is on the “higher risk” breed list, it’s important to be proactive. Monitor your pet’s health through regular exams and screenings with your family veterinarian or a veterinary cardiologist. 

At Animal Emergency & Referral Center of Minnesota, our Cardiology Service is dedicated to helping care for pets with heart disease and making sure they have a good quality of life. We will do what we can preventively to ensure your pet and your family are well cared for. We can help make decisions and guide you on management options, as well as adjusting the plan as things change. Learn more about our Cardiology Service here 

More Reading:

Animal Emergency & Referral Center of Minnesota, Fast Track Triage, color-coded triage system, pet emergency, Twin Cities emergency vet, Minnesota emergency vet, Saint Paul emergency vet, Oakdale emergency vet

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