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Everything You Need to Know About Heart Disease in Dogs

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tan dog laying on a table getting heart checked with a stethoscope by a vet

When pet parents like us think of our dogs’ hearts, we like to imagine that this particular organ produces an abundance of love, kindness, and loyalty. However, medically speaking, we know this isn’t true, even if it is pleasant to think about. In fact, from a medical standpoint, a dog’s heart can be a source of concern. Just like their pet parents, our canine comrades can be susceptible to heart disease.

Heart disease refers to any condition that affects your dog’s heart or blood vessels and interferes with their normal functions. It’s a catchall term often used to represent any number of issues. If your pooch exhibits common signs or symptoms of heart disease, it’s important you get them to their veterinarian for a more specific diagnosis and treatment plan.

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Types of Heart Disease in Dogs

Heart disease in dogs can either be congenital or acquired. Although there are only two main types of heart disease in dogs, there are many common conditions and diseases associated with them.

Congenital Conditions

Congenital conditions are present from birth. These can result from a breed’s predisposition or a condition passed down from the parents.

  • Congestive Heart Failure occurs when your dog’s heart has trouble pumping the proper amount of blood throughout the body. Congestive heart failure can also cause an increase in fluid and pressure within the heart, which can leak into the lungs and negatively impact your dog’s breathing. This condition can affect both sides of the heart and may take years to become noticeable. This condition is not exclusively congenital and may be categorized as a secondary condition related to heart disease. Dog congestive heart failure symptoms can include a cough when resting, a loss of appetite, and decreased stamina and energy with walking and playing.

  • Canine Dilated Cardiomyopathy is a disease that affects the cardiac muscles and reduces the heart’s ability to produce enough pressure to pump blood throughout the vascular system. Studies suggest that this condition can be genetic but can also be caused by factors related to nutrition and infections. This condition can be considered congenital or acquired. Breeds like Boxers, Cocker Spaniels, St. Bernards, and Great Danes can be predisposed to canine dilated cardiomyopathy.

  • Pulmonic Stenosis is a heart defect that obstructs blood flow from the right ventricle to the pulmonary artery. It can also interfere with blood flow between the heart and the lungs. This defect is frequently seen in breeds like Bulldogs, Boston Terriers, Boxers, Jack Russell Terriers, Samoyeds, Newfoundlands, and Labrador Retrievers.

Congenital heart disease conditions in dogs are often less common than acquired conditions.

Acquired Conditions

Most often seen in middle-aged and older dogs, acquired conditions typically develop over time. They result from normal wear and tear, aging, infections, toxin exposure, or nutritional factors. Below are some of the more common types of acquired conditions.

  • Canine Valvular disease occurs when the heart valves weaken and begin to leak.

  • Arrhythmias occur when an issue develops within the dog’s electrical system and interferes with how it’s telling the heart to beat. Arrhythmias may also be a congenital condition.

  • Pericardial disease develops when the sac surrounding the heart fills with fluid and affects the dog’s heartbeat. The excess fluid can also lead to rising pressure in the pericardial sac and compression of the heart. Consequently, this prevents blood from returning to the heart, making it more difficult to have blood pumped back out as well.

While learning more about cardiac-related conditions, you may also come across the term ‘degenerative heart disease in dogs.’ When a health issue is labeled as such, this typically means that it is progressive, and there will be signs of decline in function.

Heart Attacks

Like people, canines can also experience a heart attack, which occurs when oxygen is blocked from reaching the heart, and blood can no longer be adequately pumped throughout the rest of the body. Although dogs of any breed can have a heart attack, they are relatively rare in canines. That said, the odds of a heart attack occurring can increase when heart disease is present.

Dog heart attack symptoms include abnormal breathing, increased heart rate, disorientation, anxiety, lethargy, seizure, and collapse. Upon noticing these signs, keep kids and other pets back from your dog. Because asphyxiation and vomiting can accompany a heart attack, it’s important that you do not try to feed your dog any food or give them any water. Instead, it’s recommended that you carefully wrap them up in a blanket and immediately take them to your nearby veterinarian or animal hospital.

Treatment will vary based on the seriousness of your dog’s condition, but the first steps often include resuscitation. The priority will be to get your dog’s heart back to a normal rhythm, and this usually means your pup may need to be hospitalized, at the very least, for observation.

Additional treatment options include medication, a specialized diet, or even surgery. Depending on your dog’s health, some treatments may only be short-term, while others might require medication for the remainder of their life.

woman hiking with dog in the woods at sunset

7 Signs of Heart Disease in Dogs

Heart disease in dogs is like many progressive diseases where symptoms can take a long time to develop. If your pup displays any of the following signs or behaviors, schedule an appointment with your vet to have them checked out:

  1. A persistent cough that follows physical activity or intensifies at night
  2. Shortness of breath or increased respiratory rate
  3. Restlessness when sleeping
  4. Rapid weight loss (over just a few weeks)
  5. Fainting – which can look like a seizure
  6. Potbelly caused by fluid build up
  7. Decreased stamina or fatigue

These symptoms of heart disease in dogs may be more likely to appear in certain breeds or dogs of a particular size or age, but like people, any dog could be at some level of risk. It’s crucial to keep in mind that since so many types of cardiac conditions can be inherited, heart disease in young dogs is not unheard of—yet another reason annual veterinary check-ups are so important.

Dr. Jennifer Sperry, Veterinary Advisor for ASPCA® Pet Health Insurance notes that, “heart disease is a common health condition in dogs.” Not only that, but she further explains how, “it is very serious, with the ability to affect the whole-body health and life expectancy."

Diagnosing Heart Disease in Dogs

Often, veterinarians can detect heart disease in dogs during routine office visits – which can be covered if you enroll in an ASPCA® Pet Health Insurance plan with an optional preventive care option. If your dog shows any signs or symptoms during their visit, your veterinarian may recommend the following procedures: X-rays, cardiac evaluation, electrocardiogram, echocardiogram, cardiac catheterization, or blood and urine tests.

man sitting next to a barn with a dog

Dog Heart Disease Treatment

Since heart disease is an umbrella term for any condition that interferes with heart functions, treatment for heart disease in dogs can be wide-ranging and broad. Heart disease can be treated or managed through prescription medicines and supplements, dietary adjustments, and even surgical intervention depending on the condition and level of severity. As always, your first step should be to schedule a visit to your veterinarian for proper diagnosis and treatment. “Most types of heart disease cannot be cured, but they can usually be managed with medication, nutrition, and lifestyle changes,” notes Dr. Sperry. “Pet [parents] will need to partner closely with their veterinarians to create and maintain a treatment plan that improves their pet’s quality and length of life after diagnosis.”

With many acquired heart diseases, your veterinarian will likely recommend an angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitor, otherwise known as an ACE inhibitor, to help reduce stress on the heart. ACE inhibitors work to relieve pressure and blood volume. Additional drugs may also be prescribed to help manage heart disease.

Beta-blockers, nitroglycerine, and digitalis can help reduce symptoms and improve your dog’s quality of life. A diuretic may also be prescribed to manage any fluid accumulation around the lungs.

How To Prevent Heart Disease in Dogs

There is no surefire way to prevent heart disease in dogs, especially since several common types are congenital. But you can take steps to help your dog live a healthy life.

It’s always important to feed your pooch a healthy diet that includes Taurine (amino acid) and Omega-3 Fatty Acids (fish oil). Exercise is also a crucial part of having a healthy dog. While every dog requires exercise, if your pal has been diagnosed with heart disease, make sure to limit strenuous activity and carefully monitor your pooch afterward.

If you have a breed prone to heart disease, be vigilant and aware of the symptoms accompanying heart disease in dogs. The sooner you catch a potential symptom, the better prepared you and your veterinarian will be to treat the condition. For instance, some giant breeds can be at a higher risk of developing dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM).

Unfortunately, most of the gentle giants have a relatively short lifespan compared to their pint-sized canine companions, and heart complications can negatively affect that number even more. If you plan to adopt an extra-large pup, it could make all the difference to familiarize yourself with DCM symptoms (so you can keep a keen eye out for early signs) and work out a heart-focused health plan with your veterinarian.

man walking down a trail with a dog in a coat

How Dogs Can Help Prevent Heart Disease in People

The companionship of our puppy pals can put us at ease with all the tail-wagging comfort they bring. Whether it’s a few wet kisses, a cold nose, or warm snuggles, most pet parents can agree that the loyalty and companionship of a dog is good medicine for the heart—and the medical field agrees.

In general, healthier people are just more likely to own pets. But according to the American Heart Association, pet ownership can help reduce the risk of heart disease. Here are a couple of reasons behind this belief:

  • Puppy parents tend to be more active and get more exercise because of their dogs.
  • Pets provide social support to their pet parents, which helps them maintain healthy habits, like engaging in physical activities.

It’s important to note that pet parenting shouldn’t be viewed as something done strictly for medical purposes. Instead, consider it one of the many benefits of developing a warm and trusting relationship with your furry family members.

An ASPCA® Pet Health Insurance plan can help you with eligible costs for covered conditions like surgery expenses for accidents and help provide peace of mind that your pet can receive the care they need. Check out our online resources to learn more about your insurance options and get a free quote today. The information presented in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute or substitute for the advice of your veterinarian.

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