Yes, dogs get heart disease too, but it affects them differently than it does humans.
The most common heart disease in humans is coronary artery disease, usually a result of high-fat diet and/or sedentary lifestyle. Though dogs are known to enjoy the occasional slab of bacon and excess of naps, they rarely suffer from this type of heart disease.
Dogs are prone to congestive heart failure, a progressive disease that slowly decreases their heart’s ability to pump blood to the body. Eventually, the blood can back up and leak into other parts of the body, like the lungs.
95% of canine heart disease is considered “acquired”
Acquired simply means that the damage is the result of normal wear and tear, injury or infection. Some of the most common types of acquired heart disease are:
- Valvular disease, when the valves of the heart weaken and begin to leak.
- Myocardial disease, when the heart muscle weakens and enlarges.
- Arrhythmias, a rare condition where a problem with the body’s “electrical system” causes an irregular heartbeat.
- Pericardial disease, when the protective sac that surrounds the heart fills with fluid, preventing normal beating of the heart.
- Heartworm disease, when a heartworm infestation damages the heart, lungs and arteries.
That leaves only 5% of heart disease being congenital, meaning something that the dog is born with.
The most common congenital heart defect is a heart murmur
A heart murmur, which is caused by a defect in the heart that disrupts blood flow, creating a “whooshing” sound that can be heard through a stethoscope. Heart murmurs aren’t necessarily anything to worry about. Among puppies, the condition usually clears up on its own by four to six months of age.
Other congenital defects often involve the improper development of a specific part of the heart, or a small hole in one of the chambers. There are many different types, but the result’s the same: the heart can’t function properly. Such defects can limit a dog’s lifespan and make him more susceptible to other problems. Very mild cases, however, may have little effect.
It’s possible for dogs to live with heart disease for many years without showing any symptoms.
As with many progressive diseases, it’s possible for your dog to live with heart disease for many years without showing any symptoms. It may worsen over time, and symptoms may slowly emerge, or it may show itself suddenly, such as after a period of intense exercise when your dog can’t seem to catch his breath.
When to see a vet
As the heart weakens, blood can start to “back up” in the lungs, making it hard for your dog to breathe. Coupled with the heart not pumping blood as efficiently, your dog’s muscles and organs are not getting the oxygen they need, making them weak or tired. Take your dog to the vet if he is showing any of the following symptoms:
- A dry cough
- Shortness of breath
- Weight loss (which may occur rapidly, over the course of just a few weeks)
Heart disease is very treatable
Heart disease is a wide-ranging condition that requires that you work closely with your vet to monitor your dog’s condition and improve their quality of life. There is no single treatment for congestive heart failure – treatment depends on the underlying cause of heart disease and how severe the heart failure is. If properly treated, a dog can live a long and more comfortable life, despite the heart disease.
A variety of medications, supplements and diets are available to help reach these goals.
With acquired heart disease, the most likely treatment is an ACE inhibitor, a drug that relaxes the blood vessels to reduce stress on the heart (and may slow the deterioration of muscle). It doesn’t treat the underlying heart disease, but it does improve the symptoms.
Diuretics are another group of drugs that are very effective in treating congestive heart failure. They help your dog’s body remove excess fluid that has built up by encouraging the kidneys to pee it out.
Diet & Supplements
Some aspects of heart disease can be managed with a special diet. New research is showing that proper nutrition may be able to slow the progression of heart disease, minimize the number of medications required, and improve quality of life.
A key goal for managing heart disease is to maintain a healthy body weight because both weight loss and obesity can be harmful to your pet. Avoiding high sodium (salty) foods is often recommended. As is supplementing certain nutrients thought to improve overall cardiovascular function, such as taurine and omega-3 fatty acids. (Please note: dietary supplements aren’t closely regulated so quality control can be a big problem. Always talk to your vet before starting a supplement regimen.)
Do you have an inspirational story about a dog with heart disease? Share it in the comments!
Meet the Author
Dr. Clayton Jones
Dr. Jones has 25 years of veterinary medical experience as a staff veterinarian and medical director of his own practice. He also is a member of the American Veterinary Medical Society and President of the US-Cuba Veterinary Cooperation Society.