Cats may only start exhibiting symptoms when heart disease has reached a severe level, resulting in heart failure which can either be a slow process or a more sudden occurrence. Mild and moderate heart disorders can often be managed if the signs are spotted early enough. Unlike with dogs, a cough does not normally indicate any heart abnormalities (this is more likely to be attributed to a respiratory problem) however loss of appetite and lethargy can point to heart concerns. As cats already spend much of the day sleeping lethargy can be hard to spot so one of the more obvious signs is difficulty breathing, particularly breathlessness.
As with dogs, cats can suffer from congenital (from birth) or acquired (developed later in life) heart diseases. One of the most common acquired disorders is Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy, a thickening of the heart’s walls resulting in enlargement; this can eventually lead to heart failure. One of the more unusual symptoms of this condition, alongside difficulty breathing and excessive tiredness, is limpness in the hind legs due to restricted blood flow from the heart. Although Cardiomyopathy appears to be more prevalent in male cats, cats of any age, sex and breed can be affected. That said, certain breeds are more predisposed to this condition than others, including: American Shorthair, Maine Coon, Persian, Siamese and Ragdoll. It’s important to know what breed your cat is to ensure awareness of genetic predispositions such as this.
Heart disease in cats can also occur for a number of other reasons including as a secondary condition stemming from a primary one such as hypertension aka high blood pressure, obesity and lack of essential nutrients. Poor nutrition, especially a diet lacking in taurine, can contribute to health issues in cats, notably of the heart.
How to help
Severe heart disorders that go undetected or are diagnosed far down the line can prove fatal however more mild cases can be managed with regular veterinary care and several changes to cats’ lifestyles.
Nutrition can play a key role in keeping cats’ hearts healthy. Fish oils are a good addition to a feline diet as they are rich in omega 3 and 6 which have multiple health benefits for pets, including for the heart. They are made up of ‘essential’ fatty acids that the body itself cannot produce. Of all the omegas, omega 3 is particularly beneficial for the normal functioning of the cardiovascular system; it is made up of essential fatty acids DHA and EPA which can help decrease inflammation of organs including the heart plus skin and joints. Dietary sources of omega 3 include oily fish such as sardines and salmon. Unfortunately not all conventional cat foods contain high levels of omega 3 so supplements can be a good option to ensure the optimum amount. Omega 6, on the other hand, is more plentiful in cat foods and a good source is chicken. The essential fatty acids in omega 6 can similarly help reduce inflammation.
Diets lacking in taurine, an ‘essential’ amino acid for cats, can result in health issues including eye and dental problems and, in some cases, Cardiomyopathy. Even if your cat has not been diagnosed with a heart disorder, it’s a good idea to consider topping up levels of taurine in their diet. Good sources of it are red meat, poultry, shellfish and shrimp.
Alongside an optimum balance of nutrients and vitamins, maintaining a healthy weight will be beneficial for your cat’s all-round health as well as their heart. Although cats are renowned for their marathon sleeping sessions, it’s also a good idea to keep them active as much as possible by encouraging them to go outside more or playing with them and their toys. Indoor cats can benefit from ramps, shelves and taller scratching posts to boost their activity levels.
Although heart disease can be a daunting prospect, cats with mild and moderate forms can often continue to live a relatively normal life with the correct nutrition, exercise and veterinary care. If you’re particularly worried about your feline friend’s heart, monitor their breathing rate whilst they are sleeping and if it starts creeping up, seek veterinary help.