Although heart attacks are incredibly rare in dogs, heart disease is much more common, affecting up to 15% of dogs. Heart problems in dogs include congestive heart failure, canine cardiomyopathy, pulmonic stenosis, and canine valvular disease. Failure to detect and treat any of these conditions can lead to heart failure.
Unfortunately, most heart problems in dogs can’t be prevented. However, early diagnosis and treatment enable you to manage the condition and improve the quality of life of a dog. This means that it is vital that you recognize the signs and symptoms.
Let’s take a look at the most common symptoms so that you know what to look out for.
Types of Heart Problems in Dogs
Before we look at common signs and symptoms of heart problems in dogs, let’s break down the different types of canine heart conditions.
The term heart disease refers to any condition that affects a dog’s heart or blood vessels. Conditions can either be present from birth (congenital) or acquired over the course of a dog’s life. The vast majority of heart problems in dogs (approximately 95%) usually present themselves as a result of general wear and tear on the heart, or less often, as a result of injury or infection.
- Congestive heart failure: when a dog’s heart has trouble pumping the proper amount of blood throughout the body.
- Canine dilated cardiomyopathy: a disease that affects the cardiac muscles and reduces the heart’s ability to pump blood throughout the vascular system.
- Pulmonic stenosis: a heart defect that obstructs blood flow from the right ventricle to the pulmonary artery. This form of heart disease is most commonly seen in breeds like Bulldogs, Boston Terriers, Boxers, Jack Russell Terriers, Samoyeds, Newfoundlands, and Labrador Retrievers.
- Canine valvular disease: when the heart valves weaken and begin to leak.
- Arrhythmias: when an issue develops within the dog’s electrical system and interferes with how it’s telling the heart to beat.
- Pericardial disease: when the sac that surrounds the heart fills with fluid and affects the dog’s heartbeat.
Although heart disease can’t be cured, most conditions can usually be successfully managed through nutrition, exercise and, if necessary, medication. This enables the animal to maintain a good quality of life and live for many years to come.
Heart Problems in Dogs: Common Symptoms
Despite there being a range of heart problems in dogs, the majority share common signs and symptoms that can alert vets or pet owners to a potential heart condition. Let’s take a look at the most common signs you need to be aware of.
If you are a pet owner, always contact your vet if your dog displays one of the following potential signs of heart problems. Contact them immediately if your dog is struggling to breathe.
Persistent Dry Cough
A clear indicator of heart problems in dogs is a persistent dry cough. In some dogs, fluid can accumulate in the lungs when the heart isn’t pumping well. This can result in a build-up of blood in the lung tissue which often presents itself as a cough. Other heart problems in dogs can lead to an enlarged heart which can press on airways and stimulate coughing. Heart valve disease also often causes a cough, although this tends to be more common in older dogs and certain breeds such as the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.
Any persistent cough that lasts more than a few days should be checked by a veterinarian.
Breathlessness, heavy breathing, or excessive panting can also be a sign of certain heart problems in dogs. Fast breathing (more than 30 breaths per minute) whilst a dog is at rest or sleeping can also be an indicator of heart disease. A dog might sit or stand with its legs wide apart and neck stretched out if it is struggling to breathe. Or it might sit or stand for long periods of time if it is having difficulty breathing when lying down.
If you have any doubts about your dog’s breathing or notice any changes or increased efforts to breathe, always contact your vet immediately.
Weight and muscle loss in adult pets or stunted growth in puppies or kittens can sometimes indicate heart problems in dogs. Early signs will usually present themselves in the muscles over the back, over the shoulders, on the hindquarters, or on the top of the head. This muscle loss (cardiac cachexia) is caused by hormone-like substances which are produced at high levels in heart failure.
Loss of Appetite
Weight loss can also occur as a result of loss of appetite. This loss of appetite is down to the same hormone-like substances that lead to muscle loss. If you notice your pet losing weight quickly, it could indicate that there is a problem with their heart.
If you notice that your dog isn’t eating as much or as often as usual, especially if they go more than a day without food, then you should alert your vet. A good test is offering your dog their favorite treat. If they seem disinterested, then it could suggest they are not well.
Fainting or Collapse
When a dog’s heart isn’t functioning well, the brain and other organs can become deprived of oxygen and other nutrients. This can result in fainting (syncope) or collapse. This is usually triggered by exercise, although coughing can also trigger an episode.
You should always consult a vet if they faint or collapse so that they can investigate what the underlying cause might be.
Although abdominal swelling is often down to intestinal parasites, it can also be an indicator of potential heart problems in dogs. This swelling results from fluid build-up (when a heart contraction causes some blood to leak into the right atrium) and it can make a dog appear pot-bellied. Swelling usually occurs gradually and can sometimes not be apparent until there is a significant build-up of fluid. Excess fluid might also build up in the limbs and cause swelling known as peripheral edema.
Finally, a clear indicator of heart problems in dogs is any considerable behavioral change, including appetite changes (as we saw above), isolation or a reluctance to play or exercise. If you notice any obvious changes to your dog’s energy levels, appetite, mood or ability to recover from exercise then you should always consult a veterinarian as it could be a sign of an underlying heart condition.