Can pets have heart disease?

Let’s get to the heart of the matter – February is heart month, and just like in humans, it’s important to think about cardiovascular health in our pets. More importantly, pet owners should know and understand the signs of heart disease in pets.

Heart disease in dogs can be a serious health issue. One in ten dogs has heart disease, and that increases to one in six for older dogs. Cats can also get heart disease and unfortunately, cats often hide their illnesses, including heart disease, and it can be much more difficult to spot. Knowledge of the common signs of heart disease can help pet guardians recognize a potential problem and address it with a veterinarian. The sooner your pet gets diagnosed and your pet begins treatment, the better the outcome.

At Boundary Bay Veterinary Specialty Hospital (BBVSH), our board-certified veterinary cardiology specialists are trained to detect heart disease, and to help provide the most specialized treatments.

“Annual wellness exams for both dogs and cats can help catch early signs of heart disease sooner so that it can be diagnosed and treated early,” said Dr. Mark Harmon, DVM, DACVIM, BBVSH cardiologist. “When co-managed with a board-certified veterinary cardiologist, these animals can live 75% longer. Our team treats cardiovascular issues including congenital diseases in young puppies and kittens, management of heart failure, and even implantation of pacemakers in dogs so that many of our patients go on to live long and active lives.”

Watch this video to find out more about our cardiologists and the care they provide at our hospital.

10 Symptoms of Heart Disease to look for in your pet

While there are several heart diseases that your cat or dog can contract or develop, the symptoms are all usually very similar. This is because heart disease doesn’t necessarily mean one specific type of condition but encompasses a wide range of heart-related problems that can affect your cat or dog.

If your pet is experiencing any of the following symptoms, take them to your veterinarian right away. If you do not have a family veterinarian or you feel your pet is experiencing an emergency, BBVSH is open 24/7, with cardiologists on staff and on-call after-hours to handle any heart-related issues.


Like people, dogs and cats can cough for reasons related to allergies, asthma, or even sinus problems. But if your pet has a cough that lasts for longer than  one or two weeks, it could be an indication of heart disease. This is because when your pet has a heart condition, the heart isn’t pumping enough blood, which can cause fluid backup in the lungs, resulting in a cough.


Fluid build-up in the lungs can also cause breathing difficulties in your pet. Your pet may stand around with their mouth hanging open to try and breathe, and they may even seem distressed and resistant to lying down to relax.


Seeing your pet collapse can be alarming—and for a good reason. Heart disease can cause your animal’s legs to give out or for them to lose consciousness completely. There are many reasons why your cat or dog could be fainting or collapsing, but it’s best to get them to a vet immediately to understand the cause of the issue.


Most commonly, abdominal swelling tends to happen when your cat or dog has intestinal parasites, a stomach obstruction, or a tumor. Unfortunately, this can also sometimes be a sign of heart disease in your pet. Due to fluid build-up in their abdomen from the heart condition, your cat or dog’s stomach will swell, making them appear pot-bellied.


One of the less obvious signs of heart disease may be your pet’s unwillingness to exercise. It’s normal if they’re panting or breathing heavily after a vigorous round of play, but if it takes them a long time to recover or they don’t want to play at all, this could be a sign that your pet needs a checkup.


Typically, when you listen to the sound of a heartbeat, you know that a “ba-dum, ba-dum” rhythm is the sound of a healthy heart. If there’s a “whooshing” sound that’s present, though, it means that there’s a heart murmur. Your vet or a veterinary cardiologist can diagnose a murmur. If the severity or reason for the murmur isn’t too serious, pets can live healthy and normal lives with one.


Most of the time, you won’t notice a change in your pet’s heart rate without the help of a professional, but it can be an early sign of heart disease. For instance, a cat’s heart rate usually ranges between 140 and 220 beats per minute, while a dog’s heart will beat anywhere from 60 to 140 times per minute. If their heart rate is outside of that normal range, it may indicate heart disease.


Rapid weight loss in your pet is a warning sign. When your pet has heart disease and is losing a lot of weight quickly, it’s because there is a hormone-like substance produced at high levels during heart failure that results in muscle and weight loss.


It’s often easier to tell when your dog isn’t feeling well as opposed to your cat. Your dog will usually become visibly distressed when they’re in pain or feeling sick, or sometimes even hide from you. Cats, on the other hand, often do not show signs of distress when they are ill.  Often cats will hide or become aloof when they don’t feel well.  Typically, heart disease starts appearing in cats between the ages of 4 and 6 years (but it can occur at any time), so make sure you pay close attention if you notice your cat being a lot more aloof or hiding more than usual.


If your cat or dog unexpectedly stops eating, it’s a good sign they’re not feeling well, and can be a sign of heart problems. Sometimes your pet may not eat for many hours, and that’s okay. However, if they go more than a day without food, this could cause problems, especially in cats. If cats don’t eat for an extended period, organs other than the heart can start to fail, so it’s essential to make sure they’re getting enough nutrients. A sign that your cat or dog isn’t feeling well is if they refuse to eat even one of their favorite treats.

Tips for Good Pet Heart Health

Unfortunately, heart disease isn’t preventable, however, you can take measures to ensure that your cat or dog’s heart is as healthy as possible for as long as possible. These tips will help you do just that.

  • Weight management for your pet – Keeping your pet at a healthy weight is good for their overall health, but it also can reduce stress on the heart.
  • A balanced, nutritious diet – A balanced diet not only aids in keeping your pet’s weight in check, but it also ensures that your pet is getting all the nutrients needed to stay healthy.
  • Frequent exercise – Getting your dog adequate exercise including frequent cardiac exercise, helps keep your dog or cat healthy and happy. Consider walking, running, playing, swimming, hiking, or dog-related sports such as flyball and agility.
  • Annual exams – Exams give your veterinarian the opportunity to monitor your pet’s heart. If something seems off during an annual exam, your veterinarian will be able to see the changes and possibly make an early diagnosis.
  • Parasite preventation – Flea and tick preventatives can prevent illnesses that could cause stress on the heart. Heartworm preventatives can reduce your pet’s risk for heart disease as it causes 13 percent of heart disease cases.
  • Provide dental care – Dental disease is one of the most common conditions that dogs and cats face, and it has a strong correlation to heart disease, so dental health should be a top priority for pet owners.
  • Know your breed – Some pet breeds are more prone to heart disease than others. These breeds include Maine Coon, Persian, and Siamese cats and Cavalier King Charles spaniel, Boston terrier, and Chihuahua dogs.

Six Different Types of Heart Disease in Pets

“Heart disease” is a catch-all term for many different heart conditions. Here are some highlights of some of the most common heart diseases that we see and treat at BBVSH.


Valvular disease is a heart condition that can affect both cats and dogs. It appears when the valves between the chambers of your pet’s heart are abnormal, which causes leakage and—over time—an enlarged heart. This disease typically affects 10% of dogs from ages 5 to 8, 25% of dogs ages 9 to 12, and 30-35% of dogs 13 and over. Unfortunately, it can lead to signs of congestive heart failure.


When your cat or dog’s heart muscles become weak or stiff, we call this myocardial disease. This heart condition and weakening of the muscles makes it so that the heart is less efficient at pumping blood. This type of heart disease has also been seen in dogs eating diets high in peas and lentils. If detected early enough, diet-related myocardial heart disease may be reversible. While the genetic forms of these diseases can’t be reversed, they may be able to be managed with medications and proper nutrition.


Remember when we talked about the typical “ba-dum, ba-dum” that you usually hear with heartbeats? When these sounds are not occurring in a predictable pattern, animals are experiencing an arrhythmia. An arrhythmia in dogs or cats is usually caused by other heart conditions or diseases elsewhere in the body.


Did you know that there is a sac around the heart called the pericardial sac? It’s there to provide lubrication for the heart and to protect it when it moves around. It is present in both humans and our pets. When that sac becomes damaged or fills with too much fluid, we call it  pericardial disease.


Sometimes our pets are born with quirks like extra toes or a missing tail, but they can also sometimes be born with abnormalities that we can’t see. With congenital heart disease, your cat or dog was born with a malformed heart that they possibly inherited from one of their parents. And while a malformed heart may not always be a problem, as your pet ages, it can lead to many other heart conditions. Some forms of congenital heart diseases in puppies can be improved or even cured with surgery performed by a veterinary cardiologist.


Spread through mosquito bites, heartworms can be deadly to both dogs and cats. Although this is not prevalent in our region, it is very common in dogs that are brought here from other locations such as the southern United States. Check out our blog on Behr, who was treated for heartworm at our hospital.

Comprehensive cardiac care by a board-certified Cardiologist

At BBVSH, our cardiologists work closely with your family veterinarian to come up with a cardiology treatment plan to manage your pet’s condition. Our cardiology specialists keep abreast of the most current diagnostic and therapeutic options and will be a continued resource for you and your pet beyond the initial consult, communicating with your family veterinarian after the initial examination.

Following are just some of the diagnostics and treatments we offer:

  • Echocardiography (sonogram / ultrasound of the heart)
  • Electrocardiography (12-lead ECG analysis / EKG)
  • Blood pressure monitoring
  • Radiograph analysis
  • 24-48 hour Holter monitoring and analysis
  • Saline contrast studies
  • Medical management of cardiac disease (aka heart disease)
  • Thoracocentesis
  • Pericardiocentesis
  • Minimally invasive (fluoroscopic-guided) pacemaker placement, programming and troubleshooting
  • Balloon valvuloplasty
  • Medication recommendations

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