Heart problems in dogs

January 20th, 2016
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What are the most common causes of heart failure in dogs and how can you ensure that your pooch maintains optimum heart health? Tim Falk investigates.

In March this year, the Australian Veterinary Association brought together more than 100 veterinarians, vet nurses and industry professionals in Queensland to learn the latest techniques in treating cardiorespiratory disease in pets. From diagnosing and treating congestive heart failure in dogs and cats to talks on managing cardio-renal syndrome and dogs with heart murmurs, the conference was a chance for all attendees to update their cardiology skills.

However, it also highlighted the fact that just like for us humans, heart disease is a common problem for our canine companions. So what are the most common heart problems affecting our dogs and how can we better look after this all-important organ? To find out, we asked Sydney small animal veterinarian Dr James Crowley a few key questions about matters of the heart.

Common causes of heart failure

Chronic valvular disease is the leading cause of heart failure in dogs. A result of degenerative changes in the heart valves, the disease causes blood to start flowing backwards, causing turbulent blood flow which is heard by your vet as a ‘murmur’.

This congestive heart failure can lead to some pretty distinctive symptoms in your dog due to their reduced cardiac output and fluid congestion in the lungs. “Signs include lethargy, reduced appetite and coughing (worse after exercise or at night), but many dogs with uncomplicated heart murmurs associated with chronic valvular disease remain asymptomatic for years,” Dr Crowley says.

The second most common doggy heart problem is dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), which is a disease of the heart muscle in which the muscle of the ventricle loses its ability to contract normally. Clinical signs include a loss of appetite, pale gums, increased heart rate, coughing, difficulty breathing, periods of weakness and fainting. In some cases, sudden death can also occur.

“Several breeds are genetically predisposed to DCM — Doberman Pinschers, Great Danes, Boxers and Newfoundlands, amongst others,” Dr Crowley says. The treatment prescribed is based on the clinical presentation of each individual patient, with diuretics, ACE inhibitors, Pimobendan and Digoxin (to control the dog’s heart rate) all commonly used.

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What if my dog has a heart murmur?

The news that your beloved dog has a heart murmur is one of the last pieces of news most dog owners would hope to receive from their vet, but heart murmurs are actually very common in our pets. In fact, hearing a heart murmur will often be the first hint to your veterinarian that your pet has heart disease.

However, a murmur is a clinical sign and not a diagnosis; further tests are required to determine the cause of the murmur. “Many dogs and cats with murmurs live normal lives and never need any treatment for heart disease,” Dr Crowley says. “However, the only way to know for certain is to work with your vet to determine the cause and severity of the murmur.

Looking after your dog

In some cases there’s nothing you can do to prevent certain heart problems developing. However, there are a few basic steps you can take to ensure optimum heart health for your pooch.

Keeping your pet in a good weight range can greatly reduce the risk of heart disease, so regular exercise and a high-quality diet are musts. Making sure not to over-dose your pooch on fatty treats is also essential.

Other than that, the best thing to do is take your dog to the vet for regular check-ups — annually at a minimum — so you can stay on top of any health problems that may arise.

This story was originally published in the October 2015 issue of Dogs Life. Subscribe to the magazine here.

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