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Heart disease in dogs

Beagle dog being checked at the vet advice
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Recognising the symptoms early on is really important in treating the condition, so here’s what you need to know about heart failure in dogs.

By Ashley Murphy

About 10% of dogs suffer from heart disease. It usually occurs in middle-aged to older dogs, but younger canines are still at risk.

What is heart failure in dogs?

Congestive heart failure is a broad term that means a dog's heart isn't pumping blood as well as it should do. Without enough blood moving through the body, fluids begin building up, especially around the lungs. The heart has to work harder and harder to circulate the blood, and the heart chamber starts to enlarge. The consequences are potentially fatal and can include heart attacks. Luckily, heart attacks in dogs are quite rare.

What causes heart failure in dogs?

A lot of the time it comes down to genetics. Like people, some dogs are born with congenital heart defects, like a faulty valve or an irregular heartbeat. It can also be a side effect of heartworms disease, which is caused by a tiny parasitic worm called Dirofilaria immitis.

High blood pressure, obesity, and poor diet can also contribute to heart failure.

Symptoms of heart failure in dogs

In the early stages, your dog will be more lethargic. Their general activity levels will drop and they'll be more reluctant to go for walks. Your dog will also be sleeping a lot, and you may notice some unexplained weight loss. Other early indicators include persistent diarrhoea, as well as coughing - especially late at night or first thing in the morning.

As their condition deteriorates, you’ll notice that your dog has difficulty breathing, and their cough will start to get worse. Dogs suffering from heart failure will also begin to swell up, usually around the legs and abdomen. They’ll start to lose more weight, and the diarrhoea may be accompanied by vomiting. Their gums will turn a blue-grey colour and you might be able to hear the fluid in their lungs.

Acute symptoms include prolonged seizures, uncontrollable vomiting and diarrhoea, and profuse bleeding. Some dogs may even collapse. All of these symptoms will require immediate medical attention.

How is heart failure diagnosed?

A veterinarian cardiologist will need to carry out a full physical examination. This could include:

  • X-rays
  • Blood and urine tests.
  • An electrocardiogram (ECG) or maybe even an ultrasound.

But don't worry, these tests are straight-forward and painless. They're also quickest way of getting to the root of the problem.

How is heart failure in dogs treated?

It depends on how serious the condition is; this is why early diagnosis is crucial. If heart disease is caught in the beginning, a vet can prescribe medications to manage the symptoms and tackle the underlying causes. These include diuretics to clear out the excess fluids in and around the lungs and abdomens. They might also suggest Indoliators and ACE inhibitors. These are part of a special group of medicines that open up the blood vessels, which puts less strain on your dog's heart.

Once they've been diagnosed and medicated, your dog will need to be monitored closely. Unfortunately, congestive heart failure is a progressive disease, meaning that it will only worsen and symptoms can return at any time. That's why it is so important to get your dog on the right medication, and keeping an eye on his/her general health will help your vet make the right decision. Things you need to watch out for include:

  • General activity levels
  • Appetite
  • Weight
  • Any signs of returning symptoms, like fluid on the lungs.

You'll also need to check their respiratory health. It sounds complicated, but all you have to do is count how many breaths they take in one minute. Keep a record, making a note of any significant changes. And if it's ever over 40 breaths per minute, or it appears to be gradually increasing, then take them back to the vet for a checkup.

Most vets will also recommend making a few small adjustments to your dog's diet. A low-salt diet can stop the fluids building up. Calorie counting will help manage their weight, which means less strain on the heart.

Surgery is the most extreme option, and will only be used as a last resort. Veterinarian surgeons can repair damaged heart valves, and can also insert pacemakers to monitor your dog's heart rhythm. Heart surgery is a serious procedure, and also very expensive. Make sure you get plenty of advice before committing to anything.

Terms like heart failure, congenital heart defects, or congestive heart failure sound big and scary. And yes, these conditions are serious and will require medical attention. But if you spot the symptoms early, and get your dog the right care and treatment, then there's nothing stopping them from living a relatively normal life.