Would you know what to look for if your pet had heart failure? Fortunately heart attacks are very rare in dogs and cats, but sadly heart disease is very common, especially in aging pets. It is one of those hidden problems that slowly creeps up on them, often simply put down to old age. But the sooner heart problems are detected, the greater chance there is of doing something about it.
In most dogs, heart disease is caused by either valve problems or heart muscle disease. Cats too have heart muscle disease, and less commonly valve problems, but sometimes their heart condition may be secondary to another problem, an overactive thyroid gland causing an excessively fast heart rate. Sadly some breeds are more prone to heart disease than others, in particular Cavaliers, Boxers, Dobermans and Great Danes, as well as several oriental cat breeds.
In both dogs and cats, Heartworm can cause heart failure. These are large worms that physically live in the heart and multiply, growing to a size where they cause blockages. They are spread by mosquitoes which transfer the microscope stage of Heartworm, and throughout Australia it is essential to have your dog on year-round heartworm prevention. An annual injection is the most popular and convenient prevention, or you can use monthly tablets or drops on the skin. Daily tablets are still available but are very out-dated and not recommended. If your dog has not been on any Heartworm prevention, it is important that they have a Heartworm test before starting any prevention. And although treatment is available it is risky and very expensive -prevention is definitely better than cure. Interestingly Heartworm is far less common in cats, but is also even harder to diagnose and treat. Therefore, while not essential, it is wise to have your cat protected against Heartworm and the most practical is to use a monthly flea product that also protects against Heartworm.
In the initial stages of heart disease you may not see any obvious signs. This is one reason why an annual health check with your vet is so important. Consider that one human year is approximately 7 dog or cat years; it's like us only seeing a doctor once every 7 years!!! As with humans, we use a stethoscope, x-rays, ultrasound and ECG's to diagnose heart conditions. Symptoms you may notice include tiredness, weakness, decreased appetite and a reduced ability or interest in exercise. More severe symptoms include excessive panting, coughing and breathing difficulties, and particularly serious signs include fainting episodes and water retention eg swollen abdomen. If left untreated, these symptoms will become worse, shortening your pet's life. Many of these symptoms can be difficult to recognise in cats who may simply become less active and have a reduced appetite.
Fortunately, once correctly diagnosed, there are many different treatments available. As heart conditions can rarely be cured, treatment is usually lifelong and needs to be continually reviewed. As the disease progresses the treatment may need to be modified. Treatment is a combination of exercise adjustments, a special diet and medications. Many cases will only require one medication but sometimes combinations are necessary, each fulfilling a certain role. With treatment, pets can continue to have a good quality of life and the progression of heart failure slowed. Research shows convincingly that pets on heart medication life significantly longer than those without treatment.
While you can't always prevent heart disease, keeping your pet lean and fit can reduce the strain on their heart - some of you may remember the good old Epol ad, “Love him like a friend, but please feed him like a dog”! Early detection by your vet is paramount - if you notice any of the signs, especially a cough, lack of appetite, breathlessness or fatigue, then speak to your vet about a heart check. Your mate will thank you with all their heart! Through appropriate treatment and management, pets with heart disease can still lead a very happy and long life.