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Heart Disease in Cats and Dogs

There are many different causes of heart disease in our pet dogs and cats and can be very common in older pets. Zoe the vet shares her tips on what to do and how to spot the symptoms

Heart disease in a pet can be an upsetting experience for any owner.  But knowing what to look for and how to find the right care can help set you on the journey back to recovery.

There are many different causes of heart disease in our pet dogs and cats.  It can be very common in middle aged and older cats, especially pedigrees, and is normally due to an increase in thickness of the heart muscle.  Some dogs, particularly Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Boxers, Dobermans and Great Danes are also at higher risk.
Heart disease in dogs can be caused by an increase in the size of the heart, failure of the heart to contract properly or valve problems. Regardless of the cause, the initial symptoms are very similar.
This article will discuss what to look for if you think your pet has heart disease and ways that you can monitor your pet at home if they have been diagnosed with a heart condition.

Symptoms in cats

It can be very difficult to detect if your cat is developing a heart problem as they can often spend a lot of their day sleeping.  The signs are normally very subtle and you may initially notice an increase in their breathing rate when they are resting.  A cat’s normal respiratory rate is 40 breaths per minute, but this will often be lower when they are asleep.  You should barely be able to see your cat’s chest move when they are sleeping and healthy.  If your cat develops heart disease they will often show a slight increase in their breathing rate and may seem like they are struggling to breathe even when they are asleep.  This means that you will be able to see their chest rising more than you normally would and their abdomen will also move when they breathe.  Their respiratory rate will also increase to more than 40 breaths in a minute.  Some cats will lie on their tummy and breath through their mouth.  This is very abnormal for a cat and requires immediate veterinary attention.

Symptoms in dogs

Dogs with heart disease are easier to detect.  If your dog becomes unable or unwilling to run or walk as far as they used to this can be a sign they are suffering from heart disease.  They will also often develop a dry hacking cough.  If you notice sudden changes in your dog’s ability to exercise you should take them to the vet.  If your dog collapses suddenly and turns blue this is a veterinary emergency.  

Monitor breathing at home

If you own a breed of cat or dog which is predisposed to developing heart disease it is a good idea to familiarise yourself with their normal breathing and heart rate.  You should count their breaths over a minute and note how far their chest and abdomen moves in and out.  In normal healthy dog’s chest movement is barely visible.

Monitor heart rate at home

A cat’s normal resting heart rate is around 180 beats per minute.  It is normally fairly easy to feel the heart beat when you place your fingers on your cat’s chest.  Very large breed dogs can have a heart rate of 80 beats per minute and smaller dogs will be more like 120 beats per minute.  Measure your dog’s heart rate when they are resting over a few nights to get to know what’s normal for them.  If you can feel your dog’s or cat’s heart pounding very hard when they are resting, then this may be abnormal and it is worth getting them checked by your vet.  

Monitor your pets colour

Lift your dog or cats lip and look at their normal gum colour.  It should be a nice pink.  If you press a finger on the gum it will go white and then the colour should return within 2-3 seconds.  This is a sign that the heart is pumping blood effectively all round their body.  If your pet’s gums are pale or slightly blue or it takes longer than 2-3 seconds for the colour to return when you press gently on the gum, this could be a sign of heart disease and you should take your pet to the vet as soon as possible.

What will the vet do?

Your vet will listen to your pet’s heart to make sure it is beating properly and that there are no heart murmurs.  Murmurs are caused by abnormal blood flow in the heart and show that there may be a problem with the valves or size of the heart.  If any abnormalities are detected, then they may advise a blood test to see whether the heart muscle is damaged.  In cats, often thyroid function will be measured too as an over active thyroid gland, which is very common in cats, can cause abnormal thickening of the heart.  Other tests include measurement of your pet’s blood pressure, ultrasound, Electro Cardio Gram (ECG) and X-ray.  Your vet will discuss the most appropriate tests depending on how severe they think the condition may be.

What treatment is available?

Treatment very much depends on the heart condition diagnosed.  However common drugs include diuretics, ACE Inhibitors and ionotrops.
Diuretics take away excess fluid from the body which can occur with congestive heart failure.  Drugs include frusemide (Lasix), spironolactone (Prilactone) and hydrochlorothiazide (Moduretic).