Oct 19, 2010 5:42 PM by Bonnie Markoff, DVM, ABVP

Heart Failure in Dogs

Lisa has used the Animal Care Clinic KSBY Expert page to ask about heart enlargement causing fluid in the lungs. Lisa, let me start by offering my condolences; your use of the past tense in reference to Shanna implies that she must have died from heart failure. This is a common problem among small breed dogs and can be very devastating for both owners and their beloved companions.

Heart Failure is a term used to indicate a condition in which the heart is no longer effectively pumping blood forward throughout the body. Instead the blood backs up in the cardiovascular system and fluid begins to leak out of the vessels. This fluid most commonly leaks into the lungs, but can also leak into the abdomen. Fluid in the lungs causes coughing and eventually makes breathing impossible. Poor circulation of the blood can cause the failure of other organs in the body. Dogs and cats with heart failure will be tired, weak and may have a poor appetite. They may cough or gag, be unable to exercise or even walk at all, and may appear pale or even slightly blue.

There are many causes of heart failure. Leaky heart valves are quite common among dogs, especially smaller breed dogs with dental disease. When a valve leaks, the heart becomes inefficient and blood starts to back up in the system. This causes the heart to dilate and thus become weaker and eventually the heart can fail. Large breed dogs, especially Dobermans, Boxers and Labradors, and also King Charles Spaniels and other breeds often have a primary defect of the heart muscle called cardiomyopathy. This causes the heart to be weak or to beat erratically and thus can lead to failure. Cats most commonly develop a thickening of the heart muscle called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. This process can also lead to heart failure and fluid leakage.

Treatment for heart disease and heart failure is dependent on the cause of the problem. Valvular disease, dilated cardiomyopathy and hypertrophic cardiomyopathy are all treated differently. Diagnosis is based on physical exam, chest x-rays, echocardiography, specialized lab testing and sometimes more advanced techniques. In veterinary medicine, treatment is virtually always medical and can be very effective for long periods of time if the disease process is caught early. There are a few veterinary specialty centers in the US that can do valve replacements using open heart surgery (this can cost $12,000 or more and is limited to pets with strong and effective heart muscle function.) People in severe heart failure generally require a heart transplant and this is not currently being performed in veterinary medicine.

The best way to manage heart disease in our pets is early detection and prevention. Weight control and good dental care are essential parts of helping to avoid heart disease. Regular examinations by your veterinarian are essential to finding heart disease before failure begins. Your pet can have a significant heart murmur (leaky valve), cardiac rhythm problem or heart muscle weakness (cardiomyopathy) without showing any signs to you at all. Your veterinarian can hear the murmur and rhythm problems with the stethoscope and see signs of poor circulation during a routine exam. A veterinarian should see any pet who is coughing, weak or "slowing down" right away. Most heart disease responds well to oral medications and the drugs are tolerated quite well by most dogs and cats.

Everyone at ACC sends their thoughts and prayers to your for Shanna. We hope she was not too uncomfortable as her heart failed. You clearly loved her and wanted to do all you could for her. Please feel free to call us to talk about heart disease further if you wish.


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