It's a Heartbreaker: Congestive Heart Failure in Dogs

Congestive Heart Failure In Dogs
It's a Heartbreaker: Congestive Heart Failure in Dogs
Signs, symptoms, support & prognosis for dogs with congestive heart failure

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Everything You Need To Know About Congestive Heart Failure In Dogs

Q: What is congestive heart failure?

A: Similar to humans, dogs can develop many conditions affecting the heart that may eventually lead to heart failure. These could include abnormalities of the heart valves, heart muscle, or blood vessels entering or exiting the heart. As the condition progresses, fluid can build up in the lungs, chest, and abdomen. This syndrome is called congestive heart failure.

Q: What are the signs of congestive heart failure?

A: Heart disease in dogs is commonly first suspected after the dog develops a cough or decreased energy on walks (which is known as exercise intolerance). You may notice that while your dog used to be able to walk the same route every day with good energy, they are now lagging behind partway through your normal route. You may also notice a soft cough, particularly after your pet has been lying down. 

Q: How is congestive heart failure diagnosed?

A: Your veterinarian will listen to your dog’s heart to assess the heart rate, heart rhythm, and whether they can hear a heart murmur. A heart murmur occurs when the valves of the heart do not close completely each time the heart beats, which results in the ‘whooshing’ sound through the stethoscope. They will also listen to your pet’s lungs and assess their respiratory rate. Your veterinarian will likely then recommend an x-ray to assess the size and shape of your dog’s heart, and to evaluate whether there is any fluid present in the chest. Depending on what is seen in the x-rays, your veterinarian may also recommend that your dog have a cardiac ultrasound done, which is called an echocardiogram.

Q: Does congestive heart failure shorten a dog’s life?

A: Average life expectancy varies based on the cause of your dog’s heart disease, and how advanced it is. In most cases, it is possible that heart disease will shorten your dog’s lifespan. This is why it is important to obtain a correct diagnosis early of heart disease to be able to begin the appropriate medication. The most important thing you can do to support your dog is to take your dog for regular physical exams. This is usually done once a year for adult dogs, and twice a year for senior dogs over 7. 

Q: What breeds are most at risk for congestive heart failure?

A: For some of the more common types of heart disease, certain breeds are known to be more at risk. 

In the case of Degenerative Valvular disease, small breed, older dogs are more at risk. For example: Chihuahuas or King Charles Cavalier Spaniels.

In the case of Dilated Cardiomyopathy, large breed, older dogs are more at risk. For example: Great Danes, Irish Wolfhounds or Doberman Pinschers.

Q: What can be done to slow the progress of congestive heart failure?

A: Depending on what is discovered during your veterinarian’s exam, they will likely prescribe heart medication for your dog. The most common heart medications used in pets support the heart in a few different ways: by dilating blood vessels which make it easier for the heart to pump blood through the body; by sensitizing the heart muscle to calcium which improves the contractility of the heart; or by lowering blood pressure. Studies have shown that dogs who were started on a medication before showing clinical signs of heart disease had a better long term prognosis. Based on this knowledge, it is important to more thoroughly assess your pet’s heart soon after your veterinarian can hear changes through the stethoscope, or as soon as your pet is showing signs suggestive of heart disease. 

Q: Is a dog with congestive heart failure in pain?

A: No. Heart disease should not be painful for your pet.

Q: Can a dog with congestive heart failure still lead a relatively normal life?

A: Most dogs with mild heart disease can lead a normal life. Owners will need to be more aware of their activity level and not allow the dog to over-exert themselves. As the disease progresses, it is likely you will notice a decrease in their energy and that they tire more easily.

Q: At some point will my vet recommend putting a dog with congestive heart failure to sleep?

A: Unfortunately, there will come a time when your dog’s quality of life has deteriorated. You will need to make a decision together with your veterinary team regarding when the time is right to consider humane euthanasia.

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