Heart disease in dogs

November 6th, 2013
cr: bigstock, canine heart disease

Canine heart disease affects 25 per cent of dogs over the age of seven, a figure which has prompted a campaign to improve the heart health of our canine friends. Tim Falk investigates the signs and symptoms of heart disease and how to keep your pooch in tip-top shape.

As the star of the film Red Dog, the beautiful and very talented Kelpie, Koko, won hearts right across Australia and around the world. Sadly, this canine movie star passed away late in 2012 after losing his battle with congestive heart failure.

But Koko’s owner, Nelson Woss, has decided to use Koko’s passing as a catalyst for a broader awareness campaign targeting Australian dog owners. The Healthy Hearts for Dogs campaign includes a community service announcement, online advertising, social media promotions and new educational resources for vet clinics and dog owners.

The campaign will aim to educate Australian dog owners on the symptoms and encourage them to avoid any delay in contacting a vet.

Nelson says the Healthy Hearts for Dogs campaign will be Koko’s lasting legacy and will put the spotlight on a condition that affects a large number of Australian dogs.

“Koko was my constant companion and I am still very much grieving his loss. Even though Koko succumbed to heart failure in the end, the early diagnosis and treatment allowed us to spend a lot of extra quality time together. I learnt that early diagnosis and treatment can extend the life of your dog and I treasure every minute we spent together,” Nelson says.

What is congestive heart failure?

Congestive heart failure is the term used to describe the secondary clinical symptoms which develop when the heart loses its capacity to operate effectively. “The disease is a complicated one,” says Dr Ben Willcocks, veterinarian and director of pet health website www.vetico.com.au.

“Initially, an underlying cause reduces the contractility and efficiency of the heart. The heart then compensates for this inefficiency by remodelling and thickening, further exacerbating the disease. Primary causes are often congenital heart and blood vessel defects, however signs can include anything from murmurs to heart infections.”

Initially, the heart will compensate and your pet won’t experience much in the way of clinical symptoms. However, as the heart begins to lose the ability to maintain normal function, there is a progressive build-up of fluid behind the heart. “Consider it like a blocked pipe,” Dr Willcocks explains. “As the heart reduces its output, the blood pressure in the vessels which feed into the heart starts to build up. Eventually, fluid leaks out of these blood vessels into surrounding tissue, causing fluid build-up in certain areas of the body. It’s this fluid which causes the symptoms you see with heart failure in dogs.”

Heart failure is unfortunately a very common disease and Dr Willcocks says some breeds, such as Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, are more likely to develop the illness.


There are three key signs of congestive heart failure that owners should keep an eye out for:

  • Coughing
  • Decrease in exercise tolerance
  • Changes in breathing patterns

Symptoms of heart failure vary according to the side of the heart which is failing, Dr Willcocks says. “Heart failure can be left-sided, right-sided, and can often affect both sides. The side which is affected dictates the blood vessels which block up, and therefore the region of the body which is likely to accumulate fluid. Left-hand-side failure results in fluid build-up in and around the lungs, right-hand-side failure involves fluid build-up in the limbs, belly and extremities,” he explains.

Other symptoms to look for include froth coming from the nose, a swollen abdomen, swollen limbs and weakness. If your dog is seven years or older and showing one or more of these signs, it is important to see your vet without delay.

“Eventually, if not treated with heart medications and even if treated with meds, your dog can pass away from this condition as their heart eventually gives way,” Dr Willcocks says.

Diagnosis and management

Congestive heart failure can be tentatively diagnosed on clinical signs alone, but further tests are often required to attain a definitive diagnosis, identify the underlying cause of the disease and to help formulate a treatment plan for your pet.

“The use of imaging such as radiographs and ultrasound (echocardiograms) can assess heart size, any evidence of defects or fluid accumulation, and the functional capacity of the heart,” Dr Willcocks says. “Through imaging, listening through a stethoscope and a physical exam, a diagnosis of heart failure can often be made.”

However, in most cases the specific underlying cause either cannot be, or isn’t, treated. “The aim in treating heart failure is to increase the efficiency of the heart, manage any symptoms and improve the length and quality of life. Treatment is not curative, and secondary changes to the heart have usually occurred by the time of diagnosis and the commencement of treatment,” Dr Willcocks says.

The most commonly used medical treatments for congestive heart failure include:

  • Diuretics — These cause the kidneys to dump more fluid into the urine and draw fluid out of tissues and body cavities.
  • Vasodilators — These are used to decrease the resistance of the vessels leaving the heart, allowing more blood to be pumped out with less effort.
  • Positive inotropes — These increase the contractility of the heart, as well as increasing the body’s ability to cope with increases in fluid volumes.

And for owners looking to improve their dog’s heart health, Dr Willcocks offers some useful tips:

  • Omega-3 fish oils are great for cardiac health
  • Give your dog regular exercise and make sure he maintains a healthy weight
  • Prescription diets to improve cardiac health are available
  • Ensure that your dog receives regular annual health checks. Try to visit your vet every six months as your pet gets older

When it comes to diagnosing and managing congestive heart failure, vigilance is the key. As Koko’s owner, Nelson, puts it, “you want your dog to be diagnosed and treated early — that way you guys can spend as much quality time together.”

Did you know? On average, a dog’s heart pumps 4000 litres of blood a day.

Did you know? A dog’s heart beats between 70 and 120 times a minute, compared with a human heart which beats 70 to 80 times a minute.

Healthy Hearts for Dogs

For more information on improving your dog’s heart health, log on to www.healthyheartsfordogs.com.au

Make sure your furry friend is always looked after at our DOGSLife Directory

Got Something To Say:

One Response to Heart disease in dogs

  1. […] Heart disease in dogs – Dogslife. Dog Breeds Magazine – cr: bigstock, canine heart disease Canine heart disease affects 25 per cent of dogs over the age of seven, a figure which has prompted a campaign to improve the heart … […]