Heart disease is most commonly seen in older cats and dogs. There are a variety of heart conditions that affect dogs and cats, and these conditions have many different causes and treatments.
In dogs, the most often seen forms of heart disease are valve malformations (dysplasias), valve narrowing (stenosis), abnormal openings between the heart chambers (septal defects), a blood vessel not fully forming during development (patent ductus arteriosus), leaky valves (mitral insufficiency), and heart failure (the muscles simply stop working). Heart diseases that are rare in dogs are hardening of the arteries (arteriosclerosis), plaque formation, and heart attacks (myocardial infarction).
In cats, heart diseases most often diagnosed in cats are thickened heart muscles (hypertrophic cardiomyopathy), heart worm infestations, and heart failure. Heart diseases that are rare in cats are stiffening heart walls (restrictive cardiomyopathy) and enlarged heart chambers (dilative cardiomyopathy).
The best thing that owners can do is to make sure their pets have thorough, annual medical checkups so the veterinarian can catch heart disease as early as possible. The next best thing pet owners can do is to keep these pets away from stressful situations.
What are the symptoms of heart disease?
Pets with mild heart disease often show no symptoms at all and the disease may progress slowly for years before people notice any signs of heart problems. Sometimes symptoms are never seen, and it’s only during autopsy that people find out their pet had a heart condition.
Common symptoms of heart problems include:
- Lethargy, fatigue, or muscle weakness. Animals may show less interest in playing, running, or walking.
- Chronic cough, which may be more obvious at night, first thing in the morning, when they’re excited, or during physical activity.
- Difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, or rapid breathing – especially after physical activity.
- Heart murmurs, which are often detected during a veterinarian’s annual physical exam.
- Blue-looking gums.
- Decreased appetite and weight loss.
- Distended abdomens caused by fluid build-up.
- Sudden paralysis of hind legs.
What are the causes and risk factors of heart disease?
Some forms of heart disease are genetic, while others develop over the course of a lifetime. Heart disease can be a result of depressed immune systems, genetic defects, or poor diets. It is sometimes a secondary problem to infection, kidney failure, or hyperthyroidism.
The following factors increase the likelihood of heart problems developing or getting worse:
- Breed. The following breeds of cats are predisposed to heart disease:
- Maine Coons, Persians, Ragdoll, and Siamese. The breeds of dogs that are at increased risk are Miniature Poodles, Toy Poodles, Teacup Poodles, Miniature Schnauzers, Chihuahuas, Fox Terriers, Cocker Spaniels, Boston Terriers, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Boxers, and Doberman Pinschers.
- Diet. For cats, a lack of adequate taurine has been linked to cardiomyopathy. High quality commercial cat foods include added taurine. As dog food does not have added taurine, feeding dog food to cats can lead to heart disease. See the section below for additional information about nutrition and heart disease.
- Age. Older pets are more likely to suffer from heart disease.
- Gender. Male dogs have an increased chance of developing heart disease.
- Bacterial or viral infection, including chronic skin infections.
- Thyroid disease.
- Kidney failure.
- Obesity. Heart disease progresses faster in overweight animals.
- Lack of exercise. The heart muscle needs exercise to stay healthy and strong.
- Dental disease.
How are heart diseases diagnosed?
Diagnosing heart problems includes doing a physical exam, a full cardiac blood workup, and also diagnostic tests such as x-rays, ultrasound echocardiograms, electrocardiograms (EKG), or radiographs. Doing these tests is important because veterinarians need to know the exact heart condition a pet has, and they need to determine how advanced the disease is.
Most veterinarians do additional tests to check for underlying diseases, such as hyperthyroidism or kidney failure.
How are heart diseases managed and treated?
Treatment and management of heart disease depends on the specific diagnosis and whether an animal has additional health concerns. Veterinarians will design an individualized treatment plan for each particular pet.
Managing and treating heart disease is most effective when treatment plans include pharmaceutical, nutritional, and also alternative or complementary medicine treatments.
There are two goals when treating heart disease in dogs and cats: improved or alleviated symptoms and slowed progression of disease. The best way to know whether a treatment is working is by keeping an eye on symptoms, both at home and during veterinary exams.
Medications that are commonly prescribed for pets with heart conditions are diuretics (such as furosemide and spironolactone), ACE inhibitors (such as enalapril and benazepril), inodilators (such as pimobendan), cardiotonic glycosides (such as Digoxin), calcium channel blockers (such as diltiazem), and beta blockers (such as atenolol or propanolol). Nitroglycerin and digoxin are also sometimes prescribed.
Pets with heart failure have fluid-filled areas in their chests or abdomens that are drained manually by veterinarians.
Heart surgery is not typically performed on pets.
It’s important to keep animals with heart disease away from stressful situations and they should not be exposed to extreme heat. Pets with heart problems have difficulty tolerating stress and their hearts can easily give out when they’re stressed by car travel, heat, grooming, and veterinary procedures.
How does diet affect heart disease?
Most treatment plans for pets with heart problems include heart-healthy dietary changes to help slow the progression of the disease. These include:
- Switching to low sodium diets.
- Feeding high quality, healthy foods.
- Maintaining a healthy weight.
- Supplying raw bones as treats.
Adding the following nutritional supplements to their diet also benefits heart health:
- Antioxidants, such as grape seed extract, co-enzyme Q10 (CoQ10), hawthorn, selenium, beta carotene, and vitamins A, C, and E
- Essential fatty acids (particularly Omega 3 and 6), like those found in fish oil, flaxseed oil, and canola oil
- Amino acids, such as L-carnitine and taurine
- Arnica montana
- Kalium phosphate
- Calcium fluoride
Work with your veterinarian or a veterinary nutritionist to talk about the ideal diet for an individual animal.
Addiction pet foods use protein sources that are rich in essential fatty acids: Salmon, Brushtail, Kangaroo, Freshwater Eel (Unagi), and Venison. Kangaroo meat is especially beneficial because it has the highest levels of the fatty acid conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) of any red meat. CLA has been found to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and heart-related illnesses, improve immune function, reduce body fat, and increase lean muscle mass.
Many of our foods also include antioxidant-rich ingredients, like cranberries, blueberries, spinach, and seaweed. Lipoic acid, an antioxidant that is plentiful in spinach, helps other antioxidants regenerate and maintain their antioxidant capacity. Spinach is also high in potassium, a mineral that promotes heart health, lowers systolic blood pressure, and lowers cholesterol.
Addiction’s Raw Dehydrated Foods are processed so gently that they retain amino acids, essential fatty acids, and antioxidants better than canned food and dry kibble.
For more information / Sources
Picture by Stephen Cummings
Barchas, Eric. “Heart Disease and Heart Failure in Cats” and “Heart Disease in Dogs”. DrBarchas.com. June 30 2012.
“Congenital Heart Disease in Dogs”. WebMD. July 1 2012. 2007.
“Diagnosis: Heart Disease”. Cornell Feline Health Center. May 13 2012. July 26 2011.
“Heart and Circulatory System”. VetInfo. July 29 2012.
* Messonnier, Shawn. Natural Health Bible for Dogs & Cats. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2001.
Ross, Roger. “Diets & Supplements Used To Treat Heart Disease”.
FoxNest Veterinary Hospital and The Animal Pet Doctor. June 30 2012.
Siegler, Larry. “Heart Disease in Companion Animals”. Only Natural Pet. June 30 2012.
Zucker, Martin. Veterinarians Guide to Natural Remedies for Cats: Safe and Effective Alternative Treatments and Healing Techniques from the Nations Top Holistic Veterinarians. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2009.