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Ah, February. ’Tis the season for love, chocolates, and a holiday that often comes with high expectations. A romantic evening with champagne and a steak dinner sounds great of course, but we’ve got to be honest: our Valentine’s Day enthusiasm is starting to wane a bit. There is one thing though that never fails to make us weak at the knees and send our hearts all aflutter — the lovable gaze of our precious pets. They’ve got us right where they want us, wrapped around their paws and willing to do anything to make them happy. They’re our most loyal friends, our favorite snuggle buddies, and the only living creatures that we can never stay mad at. They deserve a special place in our hearts, because there is no better definition of unconditional love than the love of a pet.

In the month dedicated to symbolic representations of the heart, it seems only fitting that we bring up the health of this organ in our furry family members. Yep, dogs and cats can have bad tickers just like people, and heart disease is a topic that a lot of pet owners haven’t considered.

Just like with humans, there are two types of heart disease in dogs and cats: congenital (present at birth) and adult-onset (developed later in life). It’s common for congenital heart disease to go unnoticed for several years. Congenital defects can be genetic, hereditary, or caused by developmental issues that occur before birth. Adult-onset heart disease can develop for various reasons, some of which are unknown. Lifestyle can play a part, which is why maintaining healthy weight, getting regular physical activity, and eating a balanced diet are so important for pets.

Heart Disease in Cats

Cats are less likely to develop heart disease than their canine counterparts. Many cases of feline heart disease occur as a result of another chronic condition. Cats with anemia, thyroid disease, or high blood pressure are more likely to develop cardiovascular disease.

Heart conditions that are left untreated will often result in congestive heart failure (CHF), caused by fluid collecting in the lung cavity, and respiratory distress.

Signs of heart disease in cats may include:
  • Poor appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Lethargy
  • Heavy/rapid breathing
  • Collapse
  • Swelling/distention of the abdomen
  • Paralysis of the back legs
  • Stunted growth (in kittens)
*Please keep in mind that some of these symptoms can also be observed with other conditions unrelated to the cardiovascular system.

The most alarming sign that a cat has an advanced heart condition are inability to breath and/or walk. This can happen within a matter of hours and takes many owners by surprise. If your cat is not able to use its rear legs and is having difficulty breathing, seek veterinary help immediately. 

Treatment of heart disease will depend on the type of condition and its cause. Heart murmurs can be caused by a heart condition, but some cats affected by cardiovascular disease show no evidence of a heart murmur. Many cats with heart murmurs require no treatment and have a good quality of life. If your cat has a heart murmur, annual monitoring of their heart condition is always recommended in order to catch any progression of the disease.

Cats with heart disease usually don’t have any dietary restrictions or requirements, as long as their diet contains sufficient levels of taurine (an amino acid) and they are at a healthy body weight.

Heart Disease in Dogs

Heart disease is more common in dogs than it is in cats — approximately 10% of all canines in the United States have a heart condition. Many cases of heart disease in dogs are found in smaller breeds that are five years of age or older. More than 1 in 10 dogs with a heart condition suffer from heartworm disease, which is 100% preventable! For more information about heartworm disease, read this blog post.

It is common for a dog with a heart condition to show no symptoms until the disease has progressed to congestive heart failure (CHF). One of the first signs that your dog has CHF is coughing, both during the day and at night, when they are lying down. Other signs that a dog is experiencing CHF include:
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Lethargy
  • Weakness and exercise intolerance
  • Depression
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Collapse
  • Edema (swelling) of the abdomen or legs
Dogs that are diagnosed with CHF can take medications to control symptoms and enhance their quality of life. Restricting sodium in a dog’s diet can help reduce the workload on the heart, and supplementing with taurine, arginine and l-carnitine can help to regulate cardiovascular function, utilize energy, and make the heart muscle contract. Fish oils also may help to reduce inflammation in the body. Ask your vet about prescription cardiac diets and supplements before making any changes to your dog’s food.
The single best thing you can do as a pet parent to protect your fur babies from heart disease is to make sure they receive a wellness exam by your vet each year. When we detect a murmur in a cat or dog, we recommend monitoring their respiratory rate when they are sleeping. This can help detect heart disease in its earliest stages. Pets with heart conditions that are detected early tend to have longer life expectancies and higher qualities of life than those whose conditions are diagnosed in later stages.

Did You Know?

AERC, BluePearl and the U of M all have cardiology departments! Veterinary Cardiologists have undergone extensive training and maintain certification requirements so that they can dedicate their professional careers to helping pets with heart disease. To learn more about these specialists and the amazing ways they care for pets, visit their websites: