Matters of the Heart

The heart is an amazing thing. As a metaphor, it represents our feelings, our emotions, our joys, and our struggles. As an organ, it represents the body’s amazing ability to adapt. A little bit of the same thing, right?

Fish have a two chambered heart. Some call this rudimentary as it allows some oxygenated blood to mix with unoxygenated blood, but it works just fine for the fish! Reptiles progressed to a 3 chambered heart, realizing the need for better oxygen exchange on land. Then came the mammals, which most of us know have 4 chambered hearts. Amazing the adaptations our bodies make! Even though the mammalian heart is an incredible and amazing biological entity, it can be faulty at times (especially for some of us with our dating picks in high school!)

Why are we focusing on hearts for this issue? Good question.

One reason is February has just finished up. Who can ignore the pull on the heart strings for Valentine’s Day?! Another reason is a bit more somber. According to the Drake Center for Veterinary Care, 10% of dogs seen in primary care facilities have some form of heart concerns. As our canine companions age, they state that the number of heart related concerns and diagnosis can reach up to 75% in senior pets. That is a scary number. Cats are said to be affected slightly less than their dog partners, although I was unable to find an exact percentage. This may be, like most things in cats, because it is often more difficult to see the signs of heart disease in our feline masters, and is sometimes more difficult to diagnose.

Dogs and Cats are different…

Heart disease is different for the 2 species as well. In dogs, a condition known as mitral valve deficiency is what causes the majority of conversation (Duke says 75% again), while cats most commonly experience hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (85 to 90% of cats, per Mercola). These terms are put here because odds are, us as pet owners will hear them one day even if we don’t understand everything about the disease itself.

What to do with this information…

Yet, take heart. The advancements in veterinary medicine have been astounding when it comes to cardiac care. Yet for all the advancements in the world of medicine, the most important diagnostic tool remains to be…you. Yes, you! The pet owner, mother/father, lover of the pet. How so? That’s why we are blogging, so let’s answer that!

You know your pet.

Have you noticed any signs related to heart disease or other symptoms. These include but aren’t limited to: coughing, shortness of breath, weakness after exercise, collapse, and increased breathing rates.
Has there been other dogs in your pets known family diagnosed with heart issues?
What breed is your dog or cat? Certain breeds may be more predisposed than others.
Do you give monthly heartworm prevention to your dog AND cat? Heartworm disease is a form of heart disease don’t forget!

Wellness care and exams
Even though you’re our best tool at home, veterinarians need to play a major role in evaluating your pets specific risks for heart disease.
As your pet ages, their risks increase just like in humans. Pets over the age of 7 should be seen by their regular vet at least twice a year
Often, a murmur (which is a change in the sound of blood flow in the heart) can be detected long before heart failure ever begins. Also, it is important to note that just because your pet may have been diagnosed with a murmur, does NOT mean he or she had heart failure.

Blood work and x-rays
Yearly or even twice a year exams are essential to evaluate for underlying things that you may not know to look for as your pet ages. This is why allowing a veterinarian to look for these things can be life-saving!
Blood work cannot diagnose heart disease directly, but it can help! For cats,there is a blood test called ProBNP that can help evaluate for heart concerns directly. For dogs, there is a value called CK that can be elevated in heart values. Other diseases such as thyroid disease and high blood pressure can greatly cause the heart to work harder.

X-rays are always a good idea if there is every a murmur noted. Even if the heart looks normal on x-rays, we have a base-line size to look at, are able to look at other things such as the chest/lungs, the intestines, and other organs.

What if my pet has already been diagnosed with a heart murmur or heart disease?

If your pet had been diagnosed with a heart issue, you are still considered the first line of defense for their treatment, care, and potential progression. What can you do at home if your pet has had the diagnosis of a ‘heart murmur,’ ‘cardiac insufficency,’ or ‘heart failure?’
Routine check ups

There are a number of factors and stages to heart disease. Once your pet has been diagnosed with a heart murmur, routine check-ups are essential! In dogs with progressive disease, plan on seeing your veterinarian at least every 3 months.
Veterinarians can discuss changes in medication, evaluating blood pressure, adjusting food, herbal treatments, acupuncture, and other things to keep your pet healthier over time.

Resting respiratory rate
This is the number one indicator of progression of heart disease and is absolutely free! Counting the number of breaths per minute your pet takes while he or she is sleeping is a key diagnostic tool. What we are looking for is increased rate over time.
Monitor for signs

Familiarize yourself with the signs of the progression of heart disease. You know your pet better than anyone else. If you see any signs that are concerning, contact your veterinarian.

Do NOT adjust any medications without discussing with your veterinarian
Even though you will become the expert with your pet and often know how they respond, please contact your veteriarian prior to adjusting any medications.

Discuss openly concerns about costs and treatment if they exist.
Sometimes heart disease isn’t always easy to treat, both for you and for your beloved pet.
Your veterinarian should offer you the best level of care, including an echocardiogram. Do not feel guilty or upset if you cannot do all the testing that is discussed. This is common, but feel comfortable having that conversation with your veterinarian.

All in all, I think that the best part about these matters of the heart is that few of us can argue that our pets have the biggest heart of all. With proper monitoring, we can often prevent problems before they start. With proper care, we can help even the biggest hearts prosper on.

Sincerely yours,
Dr. Jessica Tracy of Blue Ridge Animal Hospital