A Little Bit about Heart Health

Deborah J Hadlock, VMD, DipABVP, CVA,CVSMT
Hadlock Integrative Veterinary Consulting

February is heart awareness month but February isn't the only month you should focus on the heart.

Is it really necessary to think about my dog or cat’s heart health and the need to have it evaluated periodically? The answer is YES! A thorough clinical examination by a veterinarian will help determine the heart health of your animal and better yet, if a problem is suspect visiting a veterinarian that specializes in cardiac disease –remains the cornerstone of accurate diagnosis. Further testing may be recommended after an exam which may include radiographs, electrocardiogram and or echocardiogram.

Cardiac disease can be divided into congenital (present since birth) and acquired cardiac diseases. The clinical exam should take into account the species, age, breed and sex as certain disorders are associated with particular breeds ,age ,etc. Cardiac auscultation (listening to the heart) is an essential component to evaluation. The clinician should listen to all areas of the chest, over the four heart valves (mitral, tricuspid, aortic and pulmonic ) including the right side. The heart rate and rhythm should be assessed. Abnormalities of the heart’s rhythm – arrhythmias- can cause clinical signs such as weakness or collapse. If a cardiac murmur is heard , it should be determined whether it is significant or trivial. Murmurs are caused by turbulence of blood flow through a heart valve. Innocent murmurs can be heard in puppies . These should disappear with age . If persistent then a congenital defect should be suspect . Functional or exercise induced murmurs I have often heard in the sled dogs at the Iditarod in Alaska. Vets often mistake them as abnormal withdrawing a dog inappropriately from the 1000 mile journey. Murmurs are graded 1-6/6 with the higher number being more intense or loud. Further testing may be needed to evaluate a murmur’s significance. This might also include a blood test as anemia can cause a murmur.

The most common cause of cardiac disease in the small breed dog is valvular insufficiency. This is often detected by only the presence of a murmur. It can sometimes be associated with pulmonary hypertension which is an elevated pressure in the lungs. What things should an owner look for that could indicate cardiac disease? Lethargy, reduced exercise tolerance, cough , and elevated respiratory rates are common early signs. Any dog or cat with open mouth breathing should be evaluated immediately to rule out cardiac disease as a cause. Sudden collapse may indicate a cardiac arrhythmia, conduction abnormality in the heart rhythm ( 3rd degree AV Block) or possibly fluid around the heart in the pericardial sac caused by a cardiac tumor.

What can one do to prevent heart disease? The cornerstone of all around good general health is maintaining a healthy weight , regular exercise as well as eating a diet which is well balanced and high quality. A wholesome and fresh diet is the optimal diet. Feeding more highly processed and energy dense convenience foods contributes to the inflammatory cascade. Diets that have pro-inflammatory ingredients such as corn gluten meal should be avoided as inflammation is a contributor to cardiac disease .Remember to read the ingredients on the bag not simply the front label when choosing a food for your dog or cat. Antioxidants will reduce oxidative stress. Omega fatty acids such as fish oil with the correct proportion of EPAs and DHAs will reduce inflammatory mediators.

I have found incorporating Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine with the pharmacologic management of heart disease in the dog and cat to be beneficial. This includes such modalities as acupuncture and Chinese herbal therapies.

Dr. Debbie is very knowledgeable on canine heart health and helped me with one of my very dearest dogs, Tillie, when she was suffering from Congestive heart failure. -Alexis