Be still my beating heart…….

Let’s hope not.

Pet heart disease just like in humans can come in a variety of forms and can progress slowly so can take many years to spot. Charter’s vet Toni explains a little more about this often hidden condition.

Heart disease can be caused and exacerbated by injury, infection, parasites, diet or hormonal disease. It can be acquired, or it can be congenital (present from birth). Signs become more apparent when the heart doesn’t efficiently pump the bloods around the body, called congestive heart failure.  

Some signs to help you recognise the first symptoms of heart disease in your pet include:

  • Increased resting respiratory rate – a good guide is if it is consistently over 30 breaths this is cause for concern

  • Not able to exercise as much as before and tiring easily

  • Difficulty in settling down for bed, they may pace and pant excessively

  • Coughing more than usual – this may be more noticeable during or after exercise or a few hours before bedtime

Maine Coon cats can be more susceptible to heart disease.

Some breeds can also be more susceptible to heart disease and so requiring more regular vet checks and blood tests (e.g. Maine Coon cats, Boxers and Dobermans). As heart disease progresses, symptoms will become more obvious. These may include;

  • Fainting due to reduced blood flow to the brain

  • Tongue and gum colour may look bluish-grey because of poor oxygen flow

  • A swollen belly caused from fluid build-up known as asities

  • Weight loss as there is a reduced ability to store healthy fat

Getting a diagnosis

Your vet will want to know if you have noticed any of these signs. The start of any investigation will start with listening to the heart and lungs and a general examination. Your vet may then want to run a series of tests which may include;

  • General blood and urine test to check for any other medical concerns that could be affecting your pet’s heart

  • Further blood tests more specific to the heart

  • An ultrasound to assess the size, shape, and movement of the heart

  • An ECG which measures electrical signals from the heart and tells how fast it’s beating and if that rhythm is healthy. This may be followed by the use of a Holter monitor which can be worn to allow continuous monitoring for usually 24-48 hours

  • Chest X-rays/ CT scan to give a view on shape, size and position of the heart along with changes of the lungs and other structures within the chest

  • A blood test for Lungworm and also Heartworm if they have been abroad may be considered

  • Referral to a diagnostic specialist or cardiologist may also be necessary


The treatment your pet receives depends on the cause and also the progression of the disease. This may include:

  • Antibiotics and anti-parasitic to treat bacterial infections or lungworm if caught early enough

  • Medications which can help the heart work, correct irregular heartbeats and to slow fluid build-up in the lungs

  • Surgery may be recommended for example to correct a torn valve or to insert a pacemaker correct the heartbeat

  • Exercise management depending on your pet’s condition and weight management whilst reducing the strain on the heart

  • A  prescription low-salt diet to help decrease fluid build-up in your dog’s body

  • Some heart disease will be recommended supplements for example vitamin B, taurine and L-carnitine

Broken heart?

Although heart disease can be serious and life threatening, with the right treatments, care, and monitoring, your pet can live a long, comfortable life. Early diagnosis therefore is essential, and this is where regular visits to your vet play their part. What you may think is a simple visit for an annual booster plays an important part in the health of your pet and potentially picking up conditions like heart disease. Your vet will also be best placed to give advice on blood tests and monitoring if you have a breed that is predisposed to heart disease.

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