Heart disease is still an all too common problem in humans; but do our pets suffer from heart conditions as well? They certainly do, although there are some differences as well as some similarities.
Coronary Heart Disease
Coronary heart disease – arteries blocked by fatty deposits, leading to angina and heart attacks – are almost unknown in cats and dogs. This seems to be a species difference. Pets don’t smoke, but they do get diabetes and sometimes high blood pressure and are (unfortunately) often obese, all factors causing coronary heart disease in people, but not, luckily, in our pets.
Congestive Heart Failure (CHF)
There are also differences between the kind of heart disease seen in dogs and in cats. Dogs are commonly affected by valvular heart disease, when defective heart valves ‘leak’ blood back into the heart so that the circulation of blood is compromised. This causes congestive heart failure (CHF), a condition that is also seen in humans. If your dog is developing congestive heart failure you will notice one or more symptoms such as a dry cough during exercise and at night, shortness of breath, weakness, momentary fainting spells, weight loss and a swollen abdomen. Cavalier King Charles Spaniels are particularly prone to CHF, but it’s been estimated that 10% of all dogs will become affected by it.
Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM)
Some breeds of dogs, especially giant breeds such as Great Danes but also Boxers and Cocker Spaniels, are prone to another heart condition called Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM). This is thought to be a hereditary problem in which the heart muscle gradually weakens, causing the heart to enlarge, and almost always leads to congestive heart failure.
Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM)
Cats are much less affected by heart disease than dogs. The most common heart condition seen in cats is Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM). This is similar to DCM except that rather than getting weaker and thinner, the heart muscle gets thicker and thus restricts blood flow - but still in the end leads to congestive heart failure. Interestingly this is virtually the only heart problem in pets where high blood pressure is a major factor in the onset. Cats are very prone to overactive thyroid glands as they get older, and this can cause raised blood pressure which in turn can lead to HCM.
Because both DCM in dogs and HCM in cats lead to congestive heart failure, the symptoms seen are exactly the same – shortness of breath, fainting, etc. Cats are less likely to show symptoms than dogs, partly because they don’t exercise as much, so the signs are harder to spot.
If your pet develops any of the symptoms mentioned, do seek veterinary attention as soon as possible. Heart conditions are investigated in much the same way in pets as in humans – the use of stethoscopes, ECGs, X rays and ultrasound scans are common and there are cardiac veterinary specialists for difficult cases. Heart medication for pets and people is also very similar and the supplements that help us, help our pets too.
Particularly worthy of mention are Omega fatty acids which are found in high levels in fish oils. Although many of us know that Omega fatty acids will promote a glossy coat and are good for joint mobility, it’s often forgotten how beneficial they are for the heart as well.
A final thought...
There is strong evidence that having a pet helps speed recovery after major heart surgery in people, and reduces the risk of further heart attacks or strokes. Taking your dog for a walk helps exercise you as well as your dog. So our pets can be therapeutic for us too – one more reason to love them and cherish them.