Lily, a 4-year-old grey tabby cat, had not been feeling herself for several months. However, it was not until she started leaving part of her dinner uneaten that her owners noticed a change, and scheduled an appointment with our Country Valley Veterinary Clinic team. During Lily’s physical exam, our veterinarian detected a heart murmur and recommended a full cardiac workup, which included chest X-rays, an electrocardiogram (ECG), and blood pressure measurement. When Lily’s X-rays showed fluid in her lungs, her veterinarian suspected that a primary heart disease had progressed to congestive heart failure. We recommended a visit to a veterinary cardiologist for an echocardiogram, which confirmed hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Lily began medications to help her heart function more efficiently, and control fluid buildup. She has since regained her appetite and, after seeing her renewed energy, her owners suspect her heart disease had been affecting her quality of life for some time.

Lily’s story demonstrates a common scenario. Fortunately, Lily’s owners noticed her decreased appetite and scheduled a veterinary appointment. However, not all pets are as fortunate—their heart disease often goes undetected until it progresses and threatens their health and quality of life. To keep your pet from experiencing advanced heart disease, our Country Valley Veterinary Clinic team shares facts about this often-silent condition.

Heart disease signs in pets

As Lily’s story illustrates, many pets with heart disease show little to no signs until the disease has advanced. Early signs can be subtle, and may include:

  • Decreased appetite
  • Lethargy
  • Tiring easily

As heart disease advances, pets may develop more obvious signs, such as:

  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Blue-tinged mucous membranes
  • Passing out

Since heart disease can be silent, regular wellness visits are the best way to detect a problem before it advances. During your pet’s regular physical exams, our veterinarians can detect early heart disease signs, such as a murmur or abnormal lung sounds, and perform diagnostics to determine the exact cause.

Heart disease diagnosis in pets

If your pet displays heart disease signs, our veterinary team will diagnose their specific heart disease type before initiating treatment. In addition to a thorough physical exam, our veterinary team may use blood work, X-rays, an ECG, and blood pressure measurement to diagnose your pet’s specific heart disease and determine its severity. Additionally, we may recommend a consultation with a veterinary cardiologist for further testing, such as an echocardiogram (i.e., cardiac ultrasound).

Heart disease types that we may diagnose include:

  • Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) — HCM, which is the most common heart disease to affect cats, causes the muscular heart wall to thicken inward and the left ventricular volume to decrease. The smaller ventricle pumps less blood to the body, causing blood flow to back up. Additionally, your cat may develop a blood clot that breaks free, lodges in the vessels feeding the back legs, and causes acute paralysis. 
  • Valvular degeneration — Valvular degeneration is the most common heart disease in dogs, with small-breed, older dogs typically affected. Damaged heart valves do not completely close, allowing blood to backflow, or regurgitate, during contraction.
  • Dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) — DCM causes the heart walls to weaken and stretch, and the chambers to dilate. The weakened heart cannot contract with enough force to adequately pump blood, and blood flow backs up. DCM typically develops in genetically predisposed breeds, such as Doberman pinschers and Great Danes, although a recent surge in cases has been linked to boutique, exotic, and grain-free (BEG) dog foods.
  • Heartworm disease — If your pet is bitten by a mosquito carrying heartworm larvae, the worms that are transmitted will migrate to your pet’s heart and lung vessels during a six-month maturation phase. In dogs, the worms multiply, obstruct blood flow, and eventually lead to death if there is no treatment. Heartworms cannot replicate in cats, but they do cause significant lung inflammation known as heartworm-associated respiratory disease (HARD). Fortunately, heartworm disease is completely preventable with medications our veterinarians can prescribe, and many options, from monthly chewables to injectable medications, are available.
  • Congestive heart failure (CHF) — Any heart disease, such as those described above, that disrupts blood flow can lead to CHF development. As blood backs up in the vessels leading to the heart, high pressure causes fluid to leak out into the lungs, thorax, or abdomen. Fluid accumulation can cause breathing difficulties and abdominal distension.

Heart disease treatment in pets

Most heart disease types can be treated to allow pets to live a good quality life. After determining which heart disease type your pet has, medications can be used to help their heart work more efficiently. If your pet’s heart disease has progressed to CHF, as Lily’s had, additional medications may be used to control fluid accumulation and help your pet breathe easier. 

If your dog has heartworm disease, medications can eliminate the worms and manage inflammation, although the treatment is harsh and can lead to complications, including death. Unfortunately, no curative medication is approved for cats, and treatment focuses on controlling inflammation caused by the worms. It is much easier to prevent heartworm infection than treat the disease.

Is your pet overdue for their annual wellness exam, which includes heart disease screening? Give us a call to schedule this critical visit.