At Animal Emergency & Referral Center of Minnesota, our Cardiology Service is dedicated to diagnosing, managing, and treating disorders of the heart and cardiovascular system. Regardless of whether a family veterinarian has confirmed heart disease in your pet, pet owners often have a lot of questions regarding heart health – and understandably so! We all want our pets to be healthy! And while the answers to many questions can be pet-specific, we wanted to share our general answers to the five most common cat and dog heart health questions we receive!
1. How common is heart disease in pets? What kinds of heart disease do dogs and cats acquire?
It is estimated that 7.8 million dogs in the United States have heart disease, which is equivalent to 10% of all dogs in the United States. The risk of heart disease increases with age; up to 75% of senior dogs have some type of heart condition.
For dogs, there’s no single cause of heart disease. Aging, breed/genetics, and nutrition can all play a role in developing heart disease. Heart valve problems, however, are the most common issue that we see in dogs. The second most common is dilated cardiomyopathy – a heart muscle disorder in which the heart becomes weak and cannot pump blood well. Both conditions can lead to congestive heart failure.
Heart disease affects 15% of all cats and is difficult to detect, even on a thorough physical exam. Affected cats most commonly develop hypertrophic cardiomyopathy – a heart muscle disorder which causes the heart muscle to become too thick. Feline hyperthyroidism and high blood pressure can also negatively affect the heart.
2. What breeds of dogs and cats are most commonly diagnosed with heart disease?
Dog breeds that are more likely to be diagnosed with heart disease include Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Chihuahuas, Dachshunds, Poodles, Schnauzers, Dobermans, Boxers, and Great Danes.
Cats that are more likely to be diagnosed with heart disease include Ragdolls, Maine Coons, Sphynx, and Norwegian Forest Cats.
3. What are the common signs of heart disease in my pet?
Signs that your pet might have heart disease include:
- Labored/rapid breathing
- Exercise intolerance
- Restlessness at night
- Weakness and/or collapse
- Swelling of the abdomen
- Sudden onset of paralysis of one or more legs
4. How is heart disease evaluated?
- The presence of a heart murmur, extra heart sound, or an irregular heart rhythm is an indication that a dog may have underlying heart disease.
- Unfortunately, most cats with heart disease do not have any abnormalities on their physical exams. When they do, further diagnostics should be performed.
- X-rays can demonstrate if the heart is enlarged or if there is fluid (called “pulmonary edema”) in the lungs.
- A blood test called an NT-proBNP test can detect underlying “hidden” heart disease. Other blood tests include thyroid levels and heartworm antigen/antibody tests.
- ECGs detect the presence of arrhythmias and help guide their treatment.
Echocardiography (Heart Ultrasound)
- Echocardiograms are the gold standard for diagnosing heart disease in dogs, and are performed by board-certified veterinary cardiologists. They assess the severity of leaky heart valves, narrowed vessels, and evaluate heart muscle function.
- Echocardiograms also identify birth defects and heart tumors.
5. Can heart disease be treated?
Although rarely heart disease can be cured, in most cases, it cannot. However, early diagnosis and treatment can extend a pet’s survival significantly. Treatments may involve medications, nutritional supplements, dietary modification, weight loss, and occasionally, surgical repairs. Therapeutic goals are achieved when the treatment resolves the clinical signs, and the pet has a good quality of life. Truly, nothing makes a cardiologist happier than when a pet owner shares a video of our patient playing or getting into mischief because he or she feels good!
If you have any questions or concerns about your pet’s heart health, contact your family veterinarian. They may choose to refer your pet to a board-certified veterinary cardiologist. Animal Emergency & Referral Center of Minnesota’s Cardiology Service is headed by Michelle Rose, DVM, DACVIM (Cardiology) and Robert George, DVM, DACVIM (Cardiology). They see dogs, cats, and exotic pets.