If your pet is experiencing difficulty breathing or suddenly collapses, 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!
For the past week, Captain Morgan, a 10-year-old Chihuahua mix, had been breathing a little faster and coughing. He also has a known heart murmur. He seemed fine otherwise. But one evening, after running into his house, Captain Morgan raced up two flights of stairs. At the top, he collapsed.
His owner quickly went to help him, but discovered him limp and lifeless. Recognizing the gravity of the situation, Captain Morgan’s family rushed him to our St. Paul emergency facility a little after midnight.
Midnights at the ER
In a 24/7 animal emergency hospital, an ER team must be prepared for anything and ready to act. Upon arrival, Captain Morgan was breathing heavily and was bumped to the front of the line of patients. His evaluation needed to be done quickly so he could be placed in an oxygen kennel.
During the exam, Dr. Schader, one of our emergency veterinarians, noticed a loud heart murmur and a sound called “crackles” in Captain Morgan’s lungs during his exam. Crackles sound like Rice Krispies popping – hence the name. This sound happens when the tiny airways in the lungs are filled with fluid and they suddenly snap open when the chest expands. Given these findings, the initial incident, and his medical history, as well as his grain-free diet, our team realized Captain Morgan was most likely experiencing left-sided heart failure.
Left-sided heart failure can cause a build-up of fluid in the lungs which is why Captain Morgan was having difficulty breathing. He also had a very high heart rate and high blood pressure – which can be signs of anxiety or heart disease. Arrythmias and collapsing are also common signs of heart disease.
Immediately after the exam, our ER team gave Captain Morgan two medications to help resolve heart failure and placed him in an oxygen kennel to help him breathe better. Then, we had to wait for the medications and the super-oxygenated air to do its job.
Once Captain Morgan was breathing more comfortably, it was saf(er) to remove him from the oxygen kennel to perform chest x-rays. The x-rays confirmed the diagnosis of left-sided heart failure. Unfortunately for Captain Morgan, that meant his heart was severely enlarged and there was indeed a build-up of fluid in his lungs. On the flip side, it meant that he was receiving proper treatment for his condition.
Immediately after the x-rays, Captain Morgan returned to the oxygen kennel. He remained in our hospital for continued oxygen support and received injectable medications to control his heart failure. Since heart medications can be very hard on renal function, his kidney values and electrolytes were monitored with blood tests.
After 24 hours, Captain Morgan was breathing better, and he was slowly weaned from oxygen. It was a major step forward for him, but his visit wasn’t over yet.
At AERC, our emergency team has access to our board-certified veterinary specialists. In urgent cases, the specialists do their best to make room for ER patients on their appointment schedule. So once he was stable, Captain Morgan was transferred from AERC – St. Paul to AERC – Oakdale to see our Cardiology Service. Dr. George, a board-certified veterinary cardiologist, performed an echocardiogram (an ultrasound of the heart). He also utilized electrocardiography/ECG to evaluate Captain Morgan’s heart from different angles to determine whether an arrhythmia (irregularity of the heart’s rhythm) was present and if so, how severe it was.
After a thorough cardiac exam, Dr. George diagnosed Captain Morgan with severe degenerative valve disease (DVD) and congestive left-sided heart failure (CHF). Additionally, Captain Morgan was having occasional early heart beats. With this diagnosis, Captain Morgan was discharged from our Oakdale Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and was able to go home with special medications for his heart disease.
Captain Morgan has done much better at home! Heart disease is progressive, and Captain Morgan will need to be on medications for the rest of his life. He will have re-check exams with his primary veterinarian at Grand Ave Veterinary Clinic and re-check cardiology appointments at AERC with Dr. George.
Update from Captain Morgan’s Mom:
“Captain Morgan is doing fantastic & responding well to his medication – leaving wiggle room for when we may need to increase doses as he ages. He looks forward to his pills every morning and evening because that means the pills get hidden in little pieces of boiled chicken! He still gets to enjoy his walks and all the smells – we just carry him up & down stairs now. Captain Morgan is still loving life!”
Note on Grain-Free Diets:
In most cases, dogs should never be on a grain-free diet as such diets may be nutritionally incomplete. Many pet owners believe that grain-free diets are better for food-allergic dogs. However, food-allergic pets are usually allergic to the protein in the food (i.e. beef, chicken, fish) not the grain. We recommend speaking with your family veterinarian, a board-certified veterinary nutritionist, or a board-certified veterinary dermatologist to get help finding the best diet for your dog. Find more information here.
Captain Morgan had eaten a grain-free diet for years, and some grain-free diets have been linked to a heart disease in dogs called dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). Captain Morgan did not have DCM, but he did have severe degenerative valve disease (DVD), causing heart failure.
Our “Fur-tunately: Stories of Animal Survival” series features real pets treated by our team at Animal Emergency & Referral Center of Minnesota. All images and information have been shared with the owner’s permission.