You know your pet has a huge heart, since they shower you with love and affection each and every day. But, a physically large heart can be a sign of serious cardiac disease. Heart diseases are relatively common in pets, and tend to crop up in middle-aged and older pets as the heart muscle begins to weaken, while some pets are born with congenital heart conditions. Any pet at any time can develop heart disease, but with a quick diagnosis and proper treatment, your furry pal can still live a long and happy life. 

What are heart disease signs in pets?

Numerous heart conditions can affect pets, each with its own particular signs, although many heart disease signs can be similar. If your pet develops heart disease, you may notice the following:

  • Coughing — If the heart is not pumping efficiently, fluid can accumulate in the lungs and cause coughing. A heart that becomes enlarged as the result of some cardiac diseases can press on the trachea and also cause a cough.
  • Breathing issues — Difficulty breathing and shortness of breath are common heart disease signs in pets. If your pet’s heart can’t pump properly, the blood cannot be oxygenated adequately, which can lead to an increased respiratory rate and effort. You may notice your pet breathing faster and harder when at rest, or panting when the weather is not hot.
  • Fatigue — An inefficient heart fails to provide enough oxygenated blood to your pet’s body, making them feel tired and weak.
  • Fainting or collapse — Serious heart conditions can leave your pet so weak, they faint or collapse.
  • Behavior changes — Pets with heart disease may display behavior changes, such as isolation from the family, inappetence, and lack of interest in their favorite activities. 

While these signs may indicate your pet has a heart condition, a full diagnostic work-up is necessary for an accurate diagnosis.

How is heart disease in pets diagnosed?

Heart disease in pets typically requires multiple tests for an accurate diagnosis and to develop the most effective treatment plan. To start, your family veterinarian will take your pet’s history to determine if you’ve observed any signs at home. Next, they’ll perform a full-body physical examination, focusing on the heart and lungs to check for abnormal rates, rhythms, and sounds. Not all heart conditions create a heart murmur, so additional diagnostic testing is usually necessary for an accurate diagnosis. Additional tests may include:

  • Chest X-rays — X-rays will assess your pet’s heart size, and determine if fluid has built up in and around the lungs. 
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG) — An ECG is the best way to detect an arrhythmia, which can occur in many heart conditions.
  • Echocardiogram – An echocardiogram is an ultrasound of the heart that measures its function.

What are the most common heart diseases in pets?

A great number of heart diseases can affect pets, with the following some of the most common:

  • Heartworm disease — Transmitted by mosquitoes, heartworm larvae migrate through your pet’s bloodstream to set up shop in the major blood vessels surrounding the heart and lungs. Treatment is extremely risky in dogs and non-existent in cats. Prevent this potentially fatal disease by keeping your pet on a year-round heartworm prevention plan.
  • Dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs — In a dog with dilated cardiomyopathy, the heart chambers become enlarged, diminishing the ability to pump blood. The condition has no definitive cause, but is thought to have a genetic component.
  • Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy in cats — In hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, the left ventricle muscle becomes enlarged and thickened, which interferes with normal blood flow. Similar to dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy has no exact cause, but is thought to have a genetic component.
  • Valvular disease — Small-breed dogs, especially Cavalier King Charles spaniels, Maltese terriers, and Chihuahuas, are prone to valvular disease. As these dogs age, their heart valves degenerate and weaken, and no longer close properly. Blood leaks around the valves and puts extra strain on the heart. Pets with valvular disease often show no problems until the condition has advanced later in life.

Can I prevent heart disease from developing in my pet?

Unlike in people, heart disease in pets cannot be prevented by ensuring they receive a good diet and frequent exercise, although we still recommend keeping your pet at a healthy weight, since diet and exercise help ward off many other diseases. However, you can protect your pet from one heart disease—heartworm disease. By scheduling annual wellness exams and administering a year-round heartworm preventive, you can help your pet stay as healthy as possible.

Pets with heart conditions can experience emergency situations that require urgent care. If your pet is having difficulty breathing, struggling to stand or walk, or collapsing after your family veterinarian’s normal business hours, contact our Pet Emergency Clinic and Referral Center team.