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Heart Disease in Pets: Early Detection Is Crucial

By February 27, 2023 No Comments

Like us, pets can be affected by heart (cardiovascular) disease. Although we can’t prevent or cure most types of heart disease in pets, we can help improve heart function and quality of life. And the earlier we can diagnose heart disease, the better.

What is heart disease?

Heart disease is a term that encompasses many different types of problems or conditions related to the heart. Most types of heart disease are associated with a leaky heart valve or weakening or thickening of the heart muscle, eventually resulting in an enlarged heart.

Heart disease tends to worsen over time. Pets with heart disease may end up with congestive heart failure, a condition in which their heart can no longer pump blood effectively, causing fluid to build up in their chest or abdomen. Pets may also have fainting episodes (syncope) if their heart is unable to pump blood effectively to the brain.

Fortunately, heart disease (and even heart failure) is manageable. Pets that are identified early in the disease before signs are obvious usually have a better outcome than those not identified until the disease is more advanced.

What are signs of heart disease in pets?

The first sign of heart disease in dogs is often a heart murmur, usually noted during a veterinary exam and typically present months or even years before other clinical signs are obvious. Cats, on the other hand, may have advanced heart disease with no murmur.

Other symptoms of heart disease or failure that pet owners might notice include:

  • Exercise intolerance (reluctance or inability to exercise)
  • Fainting/collapse
  • Lack of energy
  • Loss of appetite and/or weight
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Difficulty, noisy, or rapid breathing
  • Abdominal swelling
  • Coughing


What causes heart disease in pets?

Several conditions can make pets more prone to developing heart disease.

  • Age and breed are the most common
  • Being overweight
  • Heartworm disease
  • An inappropriate diet

What pets are at risk for heart disease?

Heart disease in pets is often genetic. That’s why certain types of heart disease are more common in specific breeds or species. For instance:

  • Dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) tends to affect certain breeds after middle age. These are typically large and giant breeds, such as Boxers, Doberman pinschers, Great Danes, and Newfoundlands, but some smaller breeds like Cocker Spaniels are also known to be affected. Certain diets may also now be causing DCM in some dog and cat breeds that aren’t usually affected. Inappropriate diets can cause DCM in cats.
  • Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, the most frequently diagnosed heart disease in cats, is common in Maine coons and Ragdolls.
  • Mitral valve disease (MVD), also referred to as degenerative valve disease, affects many smaller dogs (and some larger breeds) as they age; Cavalier King Charles spaniels and Dachshunds are two dog breeds commonly affected. Although MVD is common in dogs, it’s rarely diagnosed in cats.

Any dog or cat, regardless of breed or size, can develop heart disease.

What role could pet food play in heart disease?

Veterinary cardiologists across North America have raised concerns over a potential connection between dogs and cats being fed a grain-free or non-traditional diet and the number of cases of DCM. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is currently working with veterinary nutritionists and cardiologists to determine what might be causing this problem.

The diets-of-concern are mostly dry food (kibble), and generally contain a large amount of peas, lentils, other legumes, and/or potatoes in different forms as ingredients. (You may see these ingredients listed as “peas,” “pea protein,” or “potato flour,” for example.)

We don’t yet have answers about why these types of pet foods seem to be causing heart disease in some pets, but we don’t want you to worry unnecessarily. Many affected pets eating these non-traditional diet showed improvement in heart function after switching diets to one consistent with WSAVA recommendations.

If your pet is eating a grain-free diet or you have questions or concerns about your pet’s food, please give us a call.

A quick note about grain-free diets: Grain allergies are very rare in pets, so grain-free diets are often unnecessary for a pet’s health. In fact, high-quality pet foods with grain, such as premium Royal Canin pet foods, are beneficial for most pets. Far from being inexpensive filler, grains such as corn, rice, oats, and wheat are an excellent source of energy and nutrients. For example, corn contains highly digestible carbohydrates, protein, fibre, antioxidants, amino acids, and essential fatty acids.

How can we help your pet with heart disease?

Regular wellness exams play a crucial role in detecting heart disease. However, if you notice signs of heart disease in your pet, don’t wait for your pet’s next wellness exam. Contact us right away.

Early detection and proper treatment of heart disease can significantly improve your pet’s quality of life and possibly even how long your pet will live. Your veterinarian will recommend the best treatment options to help your pet with heart disease.

If you have any questions about heart health or if your pet is showing signs of heart disease, contact us right away. The sooner we diagnose the condition, the sooner we can provide support.

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