MATTERS OF THE HEART
As you can imagine, the heart is a vital organ for all animals. And, just like humans, it can be easy to miss the early signs of heart disease in our pets.
The heart works like a pump. The right side pumps blood to the lungs to pick up oxygen. The left side receives the oxygen-rich blood from the lungs and pumps it to the body. As the heart starts to develop problems, it becomes less efficient at moving blood around. In response, the muscle around the heart starts to thicken or the size of the chambers dilate. We call this compensated heart disease. In many cases there are few clinical signs, making it difficult to know that there is anything wrong with your pet. The early signs of heart disease include decreased activity levels and tolerance for exercise and, in some cases, weight loss.
As the problem gets worse you may notice an occasional cough or increased breathing rate while your pet is asleep.
Cats in particular, are very good at hiding signs that they are unwell which means we may not notice until they are having severe breathing difficulties.
Cats will often sit with their mouth open and panting, trying to get as much air in as possible. When heart disease becomes severe in dogs, they will also pant and work very hard to breathe — so much so, you can often hear a crackling sound as they pull air in and out.
Despite these obvious breathing difficulties, making a definitive diagnosis for heart disease can be quite difficult.
This is because we need your pet to lie down and be still for some chest X-rays. Just lying on their side like this can be too much for some really unwell animals. Sometimes to diagnose heart disease we will need to organise an ultrasound of the heart or measure the electrical activity.
The good news is that dogs and cats don’t often get hardened arteries or have heart attacks like humans do. Treatment for heart disease normally consists of medications to help the heart compensate for a decrease in heart function. Traditionally I have told owners that we can’t prevent heart disease but we can slow its progress.
There have been positive advances in the treatment of heart disease in pets. Some research shows that we may be able to slow the onset using a medication in a group of dogs with a specific disease. There has also been improvements in surgical techniques for the most common mitral valve problem in dogs, but it’s early stages.