Dog Cardiology: At the Heart of the Matter

The heart could easily be considered the most important organ in a dog's body. It pumps nutrients and oxygen throughout the body. When it isn't working well, it affects everything else, including stamina and breathing for starters.

What is Dog Cardiology?

Many people are surprised the first time they hear about dog cardiology. They weren't aware that dogs can have heart problems just like people, but they can and they do.  In fact, your dog can experience heart murmurs, blocked arteries, and high blood pressure (hypertension) just like you, which calls for a certain level of specialty care. If your primary care veterinarian suspects that your dog has heart issues she may refer you to a dog cardiologist for a further diagnosis.  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)"

As you can see, this is a lengthy list of possible heart conditions your dog could experience and that would require a dog cardiologist to properly diagnose. 

Listening to the heartbeat is an essential element of any visit to your veterinarian. Through the stethoscope, your veterinarian can hear if there are any unusual patterns or skips in your dog's heart and if so, make a recommendation to see a dog cardiologist for further investigation.

The Most Common Heart Diseases in Dogs

"The most common form of heart disease in dogs is valvular disease, which primarily affects small breed dogs over 5 years of age and makes up 70-75% of heart disease in dogs. Heartworm disease causes 13% of heart disease even though it is entirely preventable. Myocardial disease, such as dilated cardiomyopathy, makes up 8% of heart disease and primarily affects large breed dogs of all ages." (Source: Pet Health Network)

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.

Symptoms of Heart Disease in Your Dog

Many dogs show no symptoms at all. This is one reason it's so important to see your veterinarian regularly for check-ups. Your veterinarian will check your dog's heart and blood pressure to see if they appear normal.  When dogs DO show symptoms, this is what they usually look like:

  • Coughing more than usual, especially in relation to exercise
  • Trouble breathing
  • 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
  • Distended abdomen

These are all indications of dogs in distress and could be signs of heart disease.

Dog Cardiology - Age or Illness?

What if your Dog is Diagnosed with Congestive Heart Failure?

Your veterinary cardiologist will use equipment like a stethoscope, chest x-rays, and ECG's to assess your dog's heart health and make recommendations for your dog's care. Working in tandem with your cardiologist, you can create a treatment plan.   

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, and you can find more information about some of those options here.

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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