Time for a heart to heart: The deal with heart disease in pets

Do you ever wonder what your vet is listening for when she puts the stethoscope up to your pet’s chest and listens for a few seconds? Typically, there is just silence, and then you learn that everything sounds just fine. For most exams it a quick listen, and we move on to the rest of the physical. Sometimes, however, we need to take a few more minutes and listen because something sounds a little bit abnormal. We use our stethoscopes to listen to the hearts and lungs of our patients. They are the two organs that we cannot feel during our exam. Even though the heart is the main source of life for our patients, it is probably the most difficult to examine because of its location in the body. It is also one that gets quite a few diseases.

The heart is a muscular organ that is responsible for pumping all the blood in the body through the blood vessels. The blood brings oxygen and nutrients to the body. The heart itself is made up of four chambers which are separated by muscle walls and tiny opening called valves. The opening-closing of these valves is the “lub-dub” noise we associate with heartbeats. That is the normal rhythm that we expect to hear in any cat or dog regardless of their age. Sometimes the beat is sounds a little off key, and we listen closer to change in sounds.

The most common heart problem in canine and feline patients is a heart murmur. This occurs when one of the valves in the heart fails to close as tight as it should, and some blood leaks backward with each beat. When we listen through a stethoscope, the valve closing sounds more like a “swish” sound. This indicates that there is a problem with the main pump in the body, and it needs to be monitored more closely. Murmurs are graded on a 1-6 scoring system, with most heard in the exam room starting at a 2/6 score. While many of these patients do fine with yearly check-ups, some might need to start heart medications. There are also multiple veterinary cardiologists that can perform ultrasounds of the heart. A new diet and healthier life style might be in order as well. Your veterinarian should help guide you and make recommendations base on the size and breed of your dog, as some dogs are genetically predisposed to heart conditions.

While kitties can have murmurs, strange4often times their heart disease can sneak by undetected. The heart muscles will become extremely thickened and growing inward—a disease process called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM). This leaves very little chamber space inside the heart for blood to flow. They often show very little indication of disease, including any murmur, until their disease is pretty well developed. Brachycephalic breeds, like Persians and Himalayans, have been shown to be genetically predisposed to the disease as are Maine Coons, American Shorthairs and Rag Dolls. These patients should all have cardiac evaluations at least once, with an ultrasound, to check for disease along with labwork that includes early disease detection panels.

All dogs and cats with murmurs should all have chest x-rays to look for any signs of heart enlargement, and also look for signs of fluid in the chest/congestive heart failure. Most full-service hospitals offer x-ray services that can measure the size of the heart to determine if medical intervention is necessary. There are also a handful of board certified veterinary cardiologists in our area who can perform full ultrasounds of the heart to diagnosis underlying cardiac disease and create full treatment plans.