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Heart disease

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The heart pumps oxygen and nutrients to all parts of the body. It has four chambers: the right atrium and ventricle, and the left atrium and ventricle. The right atrium and ventricle pump blood to the lungs where it picks up oxygen, which gives the blood its characteristic red color. The left atrium and ventricle pump the oxygenated blood to the rest of the body through the aorta and smaller arteries. Valves within the heart direct the blood flow. Blood returns to the heart through the veins.

In dogs, the normal resting heart rate varies with size, ranging from 120 beats per minute in large dogs to up to 160 beats per minute in toy breeds. In cats, the resting rate can exceed 200 beats per minute.

Unlike people, pets do not have heart attacks because of anatomical differences in how blood is supplied to the heart muscle itself. However, other types of heart disease are relatively common in dogs and cats. Occasionally, young pets have congenital heart defects, such as a small hole between the right and left sides of the heart, or a faulty valve. These problems often require surgery. Various types of heart disease that are common in older pets include valve problems, cancer, heartworm infection, and heart failure.

In heart failure, the heart is unable to keep up with the needs of the body. Signs of heart failure generally depend on the side of the heart initially affected. Left-sided failure causes fluid to back up into the lungs and is often associated with coughing, panting, or labored breathing. Right-sided failure causes fluid to back up into the rest of the body, often showing up edema in the legs or abdomen. Fatigue, loss of appetite, and general ill health can be seen with any type of heart disease.

Your veterinarian will consider your pet's history and listen to its heart and lungs with a stethoscope for murmurs or sounds of moisture buildup. Additional tests for a more complete cardiac evaluation include chest x-rays, an electrocardiogram (ECG), and an echocardiogram.

Treatment for heart disease often includes medications to decrease the workload of the heart or to increase the force of its contraction. Your vet may also recommend a special diet for your pet that is low in salt and high in nutrients. The good news is that a lot of older pets can live many months with properly managed heart disease.

 

Q&A

How does the heart work?

The heart has four chambers that are divided into two separate circulatory systems.  The right atrium and ventricle pump blood to the lungs through the pulmonary circulation, and the left atrium and ventricle pump oxygenated blood to the rest of the body through the aorta and smaller arteries.


Do pets get heart attacks?

Pets do not get the sudden heart attacks that people get, but can develop heart disease.


What is the most common heart problem in older pets?

A common problem among aged pets is heart failure, which means that the heart is unable to keep pace with the needs of the body.  Fluids backup into the lungs or abdomen, and pets may have difficulty breathing or getting around. 


How is heart disease diagnosed?

Your veterinarian will consider your pet’s history and listen with a stethoscope for heart murmurs or sounds of moisture buildup in the chest.  He or she may also perform a variety of tests as part of a diagnostic workup, including a chest X-ray, electrocardiogram (ECG), or echocardiogram. 


How is heart disease treated?

Treatment for heart disease often consists of drugs to decrease the workload of the heart or strengthen its contraction.  Your pet may also be placed on a commercial heart diet that is low in salt and high in nutrients. 


Credit: Written and reviewed by John A. Bukowski, DVM, MPH, PhDand Susan E. Aiello, DVM, ELS
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