By Dr. Julie Damron
Stockton Record April 18, 2009
Heart disease is a common ailment for both dogs and cats. According to Idexx, a world recognized veterinary laboratory, 15% of all dogs, and 37% of dogs over the age of 7 are affected by heart disease. Similar to people, it can be divided into types that are congenital, or occur close to birth; and types that are acquired, occurring later in life.
The acquired diseases are thought to also have some inherited component. There are also maladies that tend to be more common for cats, those that affect small dogs, and those that typically occur in large dogs. There are certain forms of heart disease that are more common in certain breeds of both dogs and cats.
Animals with heart disease may have a wide range of symptoms including difficulty breathing, coughing, exercise exhaustion, weakness, open-mouth breathing, collapse, reluctance to move, anorexia, vomiting, weight loss, and others. Sometimes they do not show any signs of illness at all; and yet the disease process can still be very advanced. On exam these patients may have a heart murmur, arrhythmia, weakened pulse, pale gum color, decreased capillary refill time (gum color refill time when pressed) , crackles or wheezes, evidence of a clot, and/or weight loss. Many illnesses can present in this same manner including heart disease, respiratory disease, cancer, heartworm, and others.
A diagnostic workup will be recommended to determine the primary cause and the extent of illness. This often includes chest X-rays, EKG, blood pressure, Ultrasound, Heartworm test, and general blood panel. Sometimes it can be very difficult to differentiate between heart disease and respiratory disease. A cardiac biomarker blood test is now available to help in these situations. The blood level of the biomarker has been successfully used to distinguish between cardiac and respiratory disease; it also has been useful in identifying heart failure.
Treatment will depend on the underlying cause and extent of disease. Oxygen may be required to stabilize the dog or cat if they are in respiratory distress. The mainstay of treatment for heart disease in animals involves oral medications. Many of the same medications used in people are utilized to control the symptoms of heart disease in canines and felines. A heart diet that is low in sodium can be very helpful. Some problems need surgical intervention, such as repair of congenital problems, or placement of a pacemaker. Some patients may be referred to a veterinary cardiologist for advanced treatment. The best prevention is to provide regular exercise for your pet, keep his/her weight at a healthy level, and schedule routine wellness exams. As with most illnesses, early intervention is important. Please contact your veterinarian immediately with any signs of possible heart disease in your companion.