Heart Disease in Dogs

As humans, it is natural that we think about our health, what we eat and how we exercise to keep our bodies, minds and hearts healthy. Unfortunately, we sometimes forget that those very same things are just as important for our canine companions. Dogs are prone to heart conditions just like humans. As a dog owner, it is important to understand what conditions could affect your dog’s heart, and to know what you can do to keep it healthy and prevent serious heart disease.

What is canine heart disease?

The heart is a muscular organ made up of four chambers; two on the left and two on the right, each containing a set of valves. When one part of the heart fails, the remaining parts will attempt to compensate for the weakness or malfunction. Eventually, the process of compensating for the failed parts will overwork the healthy parts of the heart and result in complete failure. Heart disease is the resulting condition due to damage the heart has suffered from an underlying condition which is affecting the structure, function or overall strength of the heart.
Congestive heart disease is the gradual increasing failure of the entire heart muscle to function fully and properly; a relatively common condition which can affect any breed, and that research has shown is usually preventable. Unfortunately, the symptoms are sometimes barely discernible until the condition has become very serious.

What heart conditions affect dogs?

There are two main types of heart conditions which could affect your dog:

1. Acquired Heart Disease – which encompasses any condition that develops over a period of time, causing the heart to malfunction, or work less efficiently. These are the hardest to diagnose because the symptoms are subtle and may even go unnoticed until the condition becomes chronic or critical. Some of these problems are not preventable and simply a matter of your dog aging, while other may be associated with an injury your dog has suffered or an infection he has been fighting. Some examples are:

  • Chronic Valvular Disease – valves within the heart degenerate with age and begin to leak
  • Myocardial Disease – heart muscle weakens, which causes it to become enlarged
  • Pericardial Disease – the sac around the heart which protects it has become filled with fluid and interferes with the normal pumping action
  • Arrhythmias – the electrical impulses which tell the heart when to beat are disrupted or failing

2. Congenital Heart Disease – are problems which have developed because of a genetic defect from birth, generally discovered when your dog is a puppy. These defects include irregular heartbeat or rhythm or valve disorders. Many of these conditions can be treated and managed successfully with therapy and medications. More severe defects and malfunctions may require surgery. Your veterinarian will determine the most beneficial course of treatment to provide the best quality of life for your dog.

How will these conditions affect my dog’s heart?

Keeping the heart healthy and functioning fully and properly is important for more than just keeping your dog alive. Heart problems can affect other important systems in your dog’s body, such as the circulatory system. If blood does not flow properly throughout the body, problems could arise, affecting other vital organs. A weak heart has to work twice as hard to accomplish the same job as a healthy heart; which could greatly reduce your dog’s lifespan as well as the quality of his life.

What are the symptoms of heart disease in dogs?

An observant owner will be able to recognize when their dog is not feeling well, or is not acting normally. However, the signs can sometimes be so simple or so subtle, that owners either don’t recognize them, or feel the symptoms are minor and do not require any major medical attention. Below are some signs that your dog may be developing a serious condition that requires treatment:

  • Fatigue, lack of energy – your dog has no problem with urinating outdoors, or walking to his food bowl, but his general liveliness and enthusiasm to go for walks or play is absent
  • Excessive sleeping – especially during daylight hours, beyond a short nap here or there is not normal
  • Dry coughing – particularly in the morning when they first awaken or at night when settling down to sleep that does not go away
  • Greatly decreased or complete loss of appetite – coupled with weight loss are common warning signs of heart disease. Some dogs may even develop a potbelly
  • Blue or grey gums around teeth

If your dog displays any of the above symptoms, you should take him to your veterinarian for a thorough examination. Many owners don’t want to be a nuisance and hesitate to call the veterinarian whenever they are concerned about their pet. It may seem extreme, but if there is a problem that needs medical attention, you could be preventing more serious damage. Your veterinarian will never mind you coming to see them too often; but will surely be disappointed by the pet owner who rarely brings their pet in until a condition has become life-threatening or could have easily been treated or even prevented.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Your veterinarian will use several tools to diagnose your dog’s condition. A heart condition which involves a heart murmur will be easy to detect by simply using a stethoscope, while more complicated heart diseases may require the use of a electrocardiogram (ECG) used to measure beat irregularities, echocardiograms which measure strength of heartbeats and reveal congenital defects, chest x-rays or an ultrasound which will show the shape of the dog’s heart. Once your dog’s specific type of heart condition has been diagnosed, this does not mean he is facing a death sentence. Depending on how early the problem was detected, and what treatment options your veterinarian prescribes, he could still live a normal lifespan with proper care and close observation by your veterinarian.

Prevention

A proper diet is vitally important in maintaining your dog’s health. Supermarket dog foods and those high in synthetic fillers and salt and deficient in the necessary vitamins and minerals, which are so important to your dog’s heart and complete health, may be inexpensive and good to your budget, but detrimental to your dog’s health and well-being. The extra money spent on a high quality, highly nutritious dog food, may not only save you money you would have to spend on treatments and veterinary visits, but may also extend your dog’s life.
The excess salt found in poor quality dog foods increases fluid retention which can put extra pressure and added stress on your dog’s heart muscle. Lack of essential vitamins and nutrients which are important to your dog’s circulatory, immune and muscle systems, will weaken his overall health and reduce his body’s ability to overcome disease and resist illness. Dogs who are suffering from heart disease may have certain vitamin deficiencies which are not being met by a poor quality diet. It is always best for both dogs and humans to derive the vitamins their bodies need through food, rather than synthetic supplements. If you are concerned about your dog’s daily diet, please consult your veterinarian on the proper nutrition for your dog.
Exercise is vital to overall health, both for humans and animals. Any living creature who is sedentary will suffer because of the lack of movement (which keeps muscles toned and strong – including the heart!), poor circulation from inactivity, and stress and depression due to the resulting poor health. It may sound insignificant, but even daily walks are better than no exercise at all. Exercise also helps to prevent your dog from becoming overweight, which is important in preventing kidney failure from diabetes and over-burdening the heart, which has to work harder to move the excess weight.
Worming your dog helps to ensure that he does not suffer damage due to an infestation of roundworms, hookworms, heart worms or whipworms, all of which can make your dog seriously ill or left untreated can be fatal.

Share this article with everyone you know who has a dog, so they can be aware of the symptoms of heart disease and preventative measures!

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