Heart disease is common in our pet population. While heart disease and the mention of heart failure can be frightening, my goal as a board certified veterinary cardiologist with CARES is not to scare pet owners, but to educate them. We want clients to understand what is happening with their pet, what signs and symptoms to look out for, and to know when they need to act. After all, knowledge is power!
Heart Failure is Not a Heart Attack
In my experience, the mention of heart failure has most pet parents believing their pet will have a heart attack. Although serious, heart disease and congestive heart failure are treatable conditions and NOT the same as a heart attack. Early detection and intervention has the potential to slow progression of some heart diseases and minimize hospitalization.
So, What is Heart Failure?
Pet parents should understand that the heart is a pump. And this pump is what circulates blood to the lungs and throughout the body. As heart disease progresses slowly overtime, the pump is no longer able to do its job properly. The heart/pump is still doing its best but its performance is less than ideal. This decreased performance causes congestion, or a pressure build up. It sometimes makes more sense when you compare this to the congestion caused by a traffic jam. If the blood, or traffic, cannot move forward as it usually does, it builds up behind the problem area. This congestion/pressure builds up in the lungs if the left heart is failing and builds up in the body if the right heart is failing. When the pressure builds up enough fluid will leak out. Fluid leaks out into the lungs with left heart failure and in the abdomen with right heart failure. In the lungs, this fluid fills the tiny sacs where normally only air should be. This fluid makes exchanging oxygen more difficult. The pet will have to take more breaths to get/absorb the same amount of oxygen. This increases the breathing rate and causes a cough.
What are the Clinical Signs of Congestive Heart Failure in Dogs and Cats?
*Increase in breathing rate or effort (Normal breathing rate at rest or sleep is less than 30 breaths per minute.)
*Initiation of or increase in cough (This is for dogs only. Cough in cats is most commonly associated with lung disease.)
*Excessive panting or wheezing
*Restlessness, unable to get comfortable
*Collapse or fainting
Something Simple You Can Do At Home:
One of the most sensitive early indicators of heart failure is an elevated sleeping respiratory/breathing rate. The sleeping respiratory rate (SRR) is a wonderful tool for pet parents as it is very easy to measure, it does not cost anything and the pet is not bothered as they are asleep. There is an associated number that can be monitored overtime, relayed and discussed with your veterinarian. There are even phone applications where reminders can be set and the data automatically plotted.
A normal sleeping respiratory rate (breathing rate) is less than 30 breaths per minute. Pet parents need to count the breaths (each rise of the chest) over 15 seconds and multiply that number by 4 to get breaths per minute (60 seconds). In a potential heart failure patient, a sleeping breathing rate of over 40 breaths per minute is reason for concern and warrants veterinary attention.
Cardiologists can help!
In this age of advancing veterinary medicine, any animal suspected of having heart disease or with breathing changes that are cardiac related should be evaluated by a board certified cardiologist. Our goal is to work closely with primary care veterinarians to ensure that everything possible is being done to best treat the heart disease and heart failure.
If you have any questions or concerns about your pet’s heart health, talk to your family veterinarian or call CARES at 215-750-2774.
By: Megan King, VMD, DACVIM (Cardiology)
Center for Animal Referral and Emergency Services (CARES), Langhorne, PA