February: Heart awareness month

“What a beautiful world it would be, if people had hearts like dogs.”

How would I know if my dog has a heart condition?

42350_valvediseaseThe most common heart condition is valvular insufficiency in which case your vet will sometimes but not always pick up a heart murmur during routine examinations. A heart murmur does not mean that your dog is in heart failure. Many animals can live for years with a slight heart murmur without showing any signs of heart failure. A heart murmur is usually caused by a leaky valve in the heart. The heart is a remarkable organ and  usually manages to compensate quite well by pumping a little bit harder and faster to make sure that enough blood still reaches the rest of the body. At some stage however after years of having to work harder it may reach a point where it no longer copes in which case you may notice certain signs of heart failure.

These signs include inappropriate panting, heavy breathing, diminished exercise ability, fatigue, coughing, and occasionally fainting. The cough usually starts at night and progresses to the daytime as well, particularly when associated with exercise. In late stages of heart failure, fluid may also accumulate on the lungs and in the abdomen.

What tests are needed?

auscultationondogWhen your vet picks up a heart murmur or abnormal heart rhythms and rates, they may suggest doing further tests. Initially chest X-rays are advised. This allows the vet to measure the size of the heart and to assess whether there may be fluid accumulating in the lungs. If the heart is enlarged, then a specialist Echocardiogram is indicated, which allows the vet to see exactly what the problem is in the heart, which valves, chambers and blood vessels are involved, the heart’s pumping ability, how far the condition has already progressed and what the prognosis is. All of these things allow the vet to come up with a medication  protocol that best suits the specific case.

What is the treatment?

A number of treatments are used for pets with heart failure. These heart medications work in different ways to lower the blood pressure and help the heart beat stronger. In some cases diuretics may be indicated to remove excess fluid that may be accumulating in the lungs and the abdomen. Anti-arrhythmic medications are used when arrhythmias or irregular heart rhythms have been diagnosed.

shutterstock_128251466mBesides medications it is also important to restrict exercise. Slow walks are good but anything that puts too much strain on the heart and excessively increases the heart rate should be avoided. Certain diet changes may also be indicated. There are specifically formulated heart diets that are low in sodium which helps keep the blood pressure down and have been supplemented with important amino acids such as taurine. Any salty foods such as biltong should be avoided. Any treatment given will be lifelong – with adjustments, additions and removals as needed during the course of your pet’s life.

What is the prognosis if my dog has been diagnosed with a heart condition?

How long a dog can live happily once the disease is diagnosed, depends on age, the physical condition of the pet, and whether there are any concurrent conditions. Unfortunately there is no cure for heart failure. The medication can however greatly slow down the progression of the symptoms and greatly improve both the quantity and more importantly the quality of life. The symptoms are however likely to get worse and worse over time and despite all the medical intervention can sometimes greatly affect the quality of life to a point where difficult decisions need to be made.

Please feel free to contact either of our clinics should you have any questions or concerns or would like further information.


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