Dog Cardiology: A Surprisingly Common Necessity

Heart disease can be scary, and it can affect your furry friends. In fact, 20-25% of dogs aged 9-12 years develop valvular disease, a type of heart disease. As your dog gets older, his/her chances of developing a problem requiring a visit to the dog cardiologist increase (though dogs - and cats - of any age can be affected). Because of this, it's likely your dog may need to see a veterinary cardiologist at some point during his/her life.


What is Dog Cardiology?

Many people are surprised the first time they learn that their pets can develop heart disease, but dogs (and cats!) can have heart problems just like us.  In fact, your dog can experience heart murmurs, blocked arteries, and high blood pressure (hypertension) just like you, which can call for specialty care. If your primary care veterinarian suspects that your dog has heart issues she may refer you to a dog cardiologist for further diagnosis and treatment.  According to Vet Specialists, "Board certified veterinary cardiologists focus on diagnosing and treating disease of the heart and lungs, which include:

  • Congestive heart failure (CHF)
  • Heart muscle disease (Dilated cardiomyopathy or hypertrophic cardiomyopathy)
  • Age-related changes to the valves of the heart (Degenerative mitral valve disease)
  • Coughing and other breathing problems
  • Congenital (present at birth) heart defects
  • Cardiac arrhythmias (problems with the rate and/or rhythm of your animal’s heart)
  • Diseases of the pericardium (sac surrounding the heart)
  • Cardiac tumors
  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Pulmonary hypertension (high blood pressure in the lungs)"


Just like when you see your doctor, listening to the heartbeat is an essential part of your dog's visit to the veterinarian. If your veterinarian hears anything unusual during a visit, s/he may recommend seeing a veterinary cardiologist for further investigation.


The Most Common Heart Diseases in Dogs

There are several different kinds of heart disease that can affect dogs, as you can see in the infographic from CVCA on the right. 

The most common type is valvular disease, which makes up 70-75% of heart disease in dogs, particularly small breed dogs (such as Cavalier King Charles Spaniels) over 5 years of age. Valvular disease is also known as "leaky valve disease," which means the heart's blood pumping system isn't flowing smoothly. When the heart is strong and healthy, the blood flows in one direction throughout the body. But when one of the four valves doesn't close properly, some of that blood "backs up" and returns to the chamber it just left. Hence, the "leaky valve." This is also known as congestive heart failure or CHF.

Myocardial disease causes the heart muscle to become weak or thickened, such as dilated cardiomyopathy and hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. These can affect any dog, but they most commonly affect large breed dogs like Dobermans, Rottweilers, Great Danes, German Shepherds, etc.

Sadly, heartworm disease accounts for 13% of canine heart disease, despite being entirely preventable.


Symptoms of Heart Disease in Your Dog

There are a number of symptoms that can indicate heart disease; unfortunately many dogs show no overt symptoms at all. The infographic on the right from CVCA lists the most common signs of heart disease in pets - as well as which ones require immediate medical attention.

Of course, because many dogs don't show symptoms (or don't show symptoms until their heart disease is in an advanced stage), it's critical to see your veterinarian regularly for check-ups. Your veterinarian will listen to your dog's heart and check his/her blood pressure to see if they appear normal. If s/he finds something out abnormal, more advanced diagnostics may be required.

When dogs DO show symptoms, this is what they can look like:

  • Coughing more than usual, especially in relation to exercise, or a persistent cough
  • Trouble breathing
  • Fainting/collapsing
  • Distended abdomen
  • Less stamina -- sometimes people chalk up their dog slowing down as "old age" when it's actually heart disease
  • Pacing or otherwise having trouble settling down
  • Loss of appetite and/or changes in body weight


These are all indications of dogs in distress and could be signs of heart disease, and the first four listed (as in the infographic) are symptoms that require immediate medical attention. 


What if your Dog is Diagnosed with Heart Disease?

Dog Cardiology - Age or Illness?If your veterinarian does find something abnormal during a visit, s/he may refer you and your dog to a veterinary cardiologist. At the cardiology visit, your dog will get an echocardiogram (an ultrasound of the heart) and more, depending on what the doctor things is necessary. Then, working in tandem with your cardiologist, you and your primary veterinarian can create a treatment plan.

Research has shown that patients who have been diagnosed with congestive heart failure (CHF), the most common kind of canine heart disease, live 75% longer when their condition is co-managed by a veterinary cardiologist

According to The Merck Veterinary Manual,  "It is important to treat heart failure in order to improve heart muscle performance, control arrhythmias and blood pressure, improve blood flow, and reduce the amount of blood filling the heart before contraction. All of these can further damage the heart and blood vessels if not controlled. It is also necessary to reduce the amount of fluid in the lungs, abdomen, or chest cavity." Your veterinary team may consider medications, nutrition, and/or other tactics, depending on the particulars of your pet's condition.


Now that you know more about dog cardiology, do you need to make an appointment to assess your dog's heart health? 



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