Heart Disease in Dogs - Symptoms & Treatments
Heart failure in dogs is incredibly common. In fact, it’s almost as common as it is in humans, so it's important to have excellent health insurance for your dog. Knowing the causes and being able to recognize the symptoms of heart disease in dogs could also mean the difference in life or death for your beloved pooch.
Causes of Heart Disease in Dogs
There can be many causes of heart disease in dogs, old age being one of the most common. Though, like humans, obesity in dogs can be another major contributing factor.
Unfortunately, some breeds of dogs are also more prone to heart disease with smaller dogs like cocker spaniels and Pomeranians likely to suffer from valvular disease. Larger dogs such as Great Danes and Irish wolfhounds are prone to myocardial disease.
Symptoms of Heart Disease in the Dog
It can be easier than you think to know if your dog has heart problems. Some of the common symptoms to watch out for include coughing, which sometimes leads to gagging, being unwilling to exercise, fainting, shortness of breath, reduced appetite, and swelling in the abdomen.
Diagnosing Heart Disease
Your vet will ask about the types of symptoms you’ve noticed, your dog’s diet and lifestyle as well any medications they may be currently on. The vet will then perform a physical examination which may pick up some of the more obvious signs of a condition like a heart murmur or palpitations.
An ECG, urine and blood analysis, ultrasound and heartworm antigen tests may also be carried out. In some cases, your dog may also wear a heart monitor for up to 48 hours to record their heart rhythms.
Different Types of Heart Conditions
There are four common heart conditions that are found in dogs, however, you also need to bear in mind that different breeds of dogs are susceptible to different types of heart conditions.
We’ve summarized them below along with the cause, signs, and treatments.
Valvular Heart Disease
This is a very common type of heart disease afflicting older dogs but is often found in smaller dogs such as Chihuahuas, Yorkshire Terriers, Schnauzers, and small mixed breeds. Valvular heart disease is a thickening of the valve between the atrium and the ventricle in the heart, making it harder for the heart to pump blood.
Symptoms include difficulty breathing, pale gums, loss of appetite, and coughing.
If your dog’s condition is in the early stages, your vet may start by recommending dietary and lifestyle changes. These include cutting back sodium, adding nutritional supplements to meals, and taking more regular and controlled exercise.
For more serious cases, your dog may be prescribed drugs that help relax the blood vessels making it easier for the heart to circulate blood.
Dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) is a general weakening of the heart, meaning it can no longer efficiently pump blood around the body. It’s very common in larger breeds of dogs.
Common symptoms of DCM include a soft heart murmur, irregular heartbeat, excessive panting, coughing, restless sleeping, a distended belly, and sudden weakness and fainting.
There are a number of drug treatments available for DCM including those that dilate the blood vessels and promote heart muscle strength as well as drugs that treat arrhythmia. Your vet may also prescribe drugs to reduce any excess fluids that have built up as a result of DCM.
Unfortunately, DCM is a serious disease and has no cure. Not all dogs respond well to treatment and how a dog responds can often depend on the breed.
Tricuspid Valve Disease
Tricuspid valve disease (TVD) is another common heart problem in dogs, though it tends to be more common in medium to large-sized dogs.
Ordinarily the tricuspid valve allows for fluid opening and closing of the path between the two chambers of the heart. As dogs age, this valve can degenerate and weaken, often becoming thicker over time to the point where it can no longer completely close.
Symptoms of TVD can often go unrecognized so it's important your dog has regular check-ups at the vet, especially as they get older. The early signs of TVD are often minor, usually only a mild heart murmur.
However, once the disease has spread and caused enlargement of the right side of the heart, you may see fluid accumulation in the chest, loss of appetite, a bloated abdomen, swelling in the legs, coughing, and general lethargy.
The good news is that in mild cases of TVD your dog can live a normal, happy life with just a few lifestyle changes and controlled exercise.
Heart Murmurs in Dogs
A heart murmur is an abnormal heart sound and can affect any dog across all breeds. There are many different types of murmur and not all of them sound the same. They also vary in severity.
Your vet will check the loudness and turbulence of the murmur and it’ll be graded on a scale of 1 to 6. Those at the low end are usually harmless and will often have little-to-no impact on your dog’s health.
However, the louder the murmur, the more turbulent the blood flow to the heart. Those murmurs often suggest more serious underlying issues and are common symptoms of the more serious diseases we’ve covered.
Many dogs with murmurs won’t need any treatment at all, other than regular monitoring by your vet. If the murmurs are more serious, a diagnosis will be carried out to find the underlying cause and the appropriate treatment.
Heart Disease Treatment
You’ll be understandably worried once your dog has been diagnosed with any type of heart disease. Dog life expectancy varies across breeds and the effectiveness of treatments can also vary considerably. Treatments may also depend on the type of heart disease, but include:
- Fitting of a pacemaker
- Medications to correct an irregular heartbeat
- Drugs to strengthen the heart muscle
- Dietary and lifestyle changes
- Treatments to reduce fluid build-up
- Operations to repair tears to the heart muscle
Home Care of a Dog with Heart Disease
Good home care can not only help prevent heart disease, but it can also help your dog live longer and delay full heart failure. Your main priority will be observation, checking in on general activity, condition, appetite, and breathing. These will all help give you an idea of whether your dog’s condition is getting worse and needs further treatment.
You’ll be responsible for providing a healthy diet, monitoring sodium intake, and making sure your dog is getting enough exercise to match their tolerance level.
Finally, you’ll also be the one to administer any medications at home. Make sure you keep your dog’s pills organized and have a medication schedule written out so you don’t miss any doses.
Is heart disease the same as heart failure?
Some owners can be confused when their dog receives a heart disease diagnosis and wonder just how serious it is.
It’s helpful to know that heart disease in cats and dogs is a very common diagnosis. There are many different types of heart disease, all varying in severity, and not all will develop into full heart failure. In fact, many dogs can live quite happy, normal lives as long as their heart disease is managed properly.
Heart failure is when heart disease has progressed to the point of being life-threatening to your dog. This is why it's very important to monitor your dog at home if they become diagnosed with a heart condition to help prevent heart failure.