Heart disease in pets

Max, a Lhaso Apso owned by Heather Mohr of Green Valley, was diagnosed with a grade 1 heart murmur at one year old. At 14, Max's heart became enlarged and required medication until Mohr euthanized him eighteen months later. Courtesy photo.

When Heather Mohr took her dog Max for a veterinary visit at one year old, it was revealed the Lhaso Apso mix had a grade 1 heart murmur.

Nothing came of it until Max turned 10, when a different vet said he could hear that the dog had a slightly enlarged heart. Mohr was told to keep an eye on Max to see if he started coughing on a regular basis or tired out more easily.

“He was fine, just going through life,” Mohr recalled.

Max didn’t start showing signals of distress until he was 14, when he coughing and lethargy became more common. Mohr, who lives in Green Valley, took Max in for an exam and was alarmed at the results of X-rays.

An X-Ray image of Max’s chest area shows how large his heart had become, which came as a shock to both Mohr and her veterinarian as Max hadn’t displayed any dramatic symptoms. Courtesy photo.

“His heart was bigger than his liver. It was pushing up against his esophagus and trachea,” she recalled. “The vet office didn’t know because dogs start usually start coughing way before that stage but Max didn’t. There weren’t any symptoms to think his heart would have gotten that big.”

According to Gina Johnson, veterinarian at Happy Pets Veterinary Center in Valencia, heart disease is very common in pets.

“Pets can suffer from many of the same problems humans can when it comes to their hearts, ranging from issues with heart valves, arrhythmias, congenital problems and enlarged hearts,” she said. “They can also get tumors, infections, and parasites of the heart.”

At Happy Pets, Johnson sees mitral valve disease as the primary heart problem for small dogs, while larger dogs are more prone to dilated cardiomyopathy (weakening of the heart walls) and hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (thickening of the heart muscle) as the most common heart disease in cats.

Symptoms of heart disease in pets are often subtle, ranging from exercise intolerance (becoming tired on walks that used to be easy or when playing inside the house), rapid breathing even when the pet is resting, a soft cough, pale or blue gums, and unexplained weight loss.

“Any pet that has fainting episodes should always immediately go to the vet,” Johnson said. “In cats, or dogs with arrhythmias, sudden death may be the only symptom.”

Like in humans, heart disease can stem from genetics. Johnson said certain breeds such as Dobermans and Boxers are more prone to heart problems than other dogs of a similar size, while Cavalier King Charles Spaniels have the highest rate and earliest onset of mitral valve disease. Cat breeds such as Maine Coons and Ragdolls are at greater risk of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which may affect cats at a very early age.

Dental disease, which can cause bacteria to circulate throughout the bloodstream and create an infection of the heart sac, and parasites such as heartworm can also be the cause of heart disease.

Unlike humans, diet and exercise are rarely linked to pet disease, as Johnson explained. “A pets’ normal lifespans do not give enough time for atherosclerosis and high cholesterol to cause problems. Genetics is the biggest risk factor and there is little that can be done to prevent heart disease from developing,” she said. “However, an annual exam can help to catch heart problems, like heart murmurs, which can be detected before any symptoms have developed. In pets that are at risk because of their breed or history, cardiac tests like EKGs or special blood tests may be recommended at a younger age.”

Upon diagnosis, medications may be prescribed to help manage blood pressure, reduce load and strain on the heart, allow the heart to pump more strongly, move fluids away from the lungs, or regulate arrhythmias. Medications usually need to be monitored regularly and some medications require regular heart or blood testing.

Max was put on several heart medications in October of 2014, which totally helped, according to Mohr. “Within a couple weeks, he would want to play with his toys and run around the backyard. We worried he was going to explode his heart while chasing a squirrel, but what better way to go if you’re a dog?”

Mohr also switched Max’s diet to a homemade mixture of veggies, unsalted canned salmon, and coconut oil. Max was very stable for over a year, though he developed dementia and severe anxiety as a side effect of the medications.

Eighteen months after his initial diagnosis, Mohr made the difficult decision to euthanize Max. “It’s hard to know when it’s time, but we knew he wasn’t happy anymore,” she said.

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