Pet Health Issues: The Heart


By Dr. Gary A. Borgman, DVM

In the Jan./Feb. issue of Osceola Woman Magazine, I indicated that I would address the various body systems in future articles. So… I will begin with the cardio-vascular system. As we all know, healthy heart function is absolutely essential for humans and animals. Fortunately, dogs and cats have very few heart birth defects.

The seldom-encountered patent ductus arteriosis condition is failure of a shunt (between the pulmonary artery and aorta) to close at birth resulting in very poor oxygenation to the body tissues. When we listen to the heart of these unfortunate young puppies, we hear a very pronounced “machinery murmur” instead of a nice regular “lub-dub”. These patients often are weak, lethargic, and exercise-intolerant. Their gums and tongue are often bluish instead of pink. The only treatment option is a risky heart surgery by a specialist surgeon. Fortunately, though, this is a very rare condition. In my 47 years of practice, I can count on one hand the number of cases I’ve encountered.

Occasionally we will detect a mild “functional murmur” in a young animal with no adverse symptoms. Oftentimes, these patients grow out of it. We also sometimes hear a murmur when puppies or kittens are anemic due to parasites. This is because the blood is thin. This condition goes away after we correct the anemia.

The most common heart conditions of adult dogs and cats are either heart valve disease or cardio-myopathy. When we detect a murmur in small- and medium-sized dogs, it is usually atrio-ventricular disease, meaning the valves are leaking and producing a “whoosh” instead of a nice “lub-dub”. We can pick up these murmurs at any age, but usually it is in middle-aged or older patients.

Heart murmurs are more common in small dogs. I have detected many heart murmurs at various ages, and the patients are clinically normal. We always alert their owners to be observant for symptoms of congestive heart failure (CHF). The symptoms of CHF include coughing, labored breathing, exercise intolerance, lethargy, gagging and spitting up of phlegm or foam and sometimes even collapsing with exercise or stress. Fainting or seizures can also occur. Severe CHF with resultant pulmonary edema is very serious and life-threatening.

Fortunately we have a number of medications available to help relieve lung edema, increase circulation efficiency and strengthen the heart contractures. Before beginning medications, it is best to evaluate the heart and lungs with an x-ray and sometimes ultrasound imaging. Also, we will advise laboratory tests (blood and urine analysis) to evaluate liver, kidney, electrolytes and other health issues. Electrocardiograms are helpful, and we can transmit EKG data to specialists for consultation.

Larger dogs are more likely to suffer from cardiomyopathy, which means unhealthy cardiac musculature. Most of these patients have enlarged heart size and decreased contractural strength. This is a very serious condition and can rapidly advance to become life-threatening.  X-ray, ultrasound, EKG, laboratory analysis and consultation with a veterinary cardiologist may be needed.

On a personal note, the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel breed is genetically pre-disposed to develop CHF due to heart valve disease. We lost our nine-year-old Princess Leia last year to this condition. I understand the heartbreak of CHF!

Our feline patients are also prone to a variety of heart problems. Cats can and do get CHF, hypertension and arrhythmias. Diagnostic work-up (x-ray, EKG, blood pressure monitoring and appropriate laboratory tests) enable appropriate treatments. One example, unique to cats, is a cardiomyopathy secondary to uncontrolled feline hyperthyroidism. I will discuss endocrine diseases in the next issue.

The veterinarians and staff of Kissimmee Animal Hospital (407-846-3912) and Poinciana Pet Clinic (407-518-0880) are available to answer any pet health questions. We are here to help and to serve!