From College of Veterinary Medicine, Texas A&M University
February definitely has heart. It’s the month we celebrate National Heart Awareness and Valentine’s Day. For those reasons, February is a good reminder for owners to learn more about pet heart disease so their pets can live a long, happy and healthy life.
Cats and dogs may be born with a congenital heart condition, or they may acquire a heart disease as they age. According to Dr. Crystal Hariu, cardiology resident in small animal medicine and surgery at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM), both congenital and acquired heart diseases may be related to structural defects or heart rhythm problems.
“For instance, a heart valve that did not perform properly, or becomes abnormal over time, may not function adequately and could cause problems,” says Hariu. “Congenital and acquired heart diseases may also be related to a heart rhythm problem, meaning the rhythm at which the heart beats is too fast or too slow.”
One of the most common heart diseases for pets in Texas is heartworm disease.
“Despite its name, heartworm disease is caused by a parasite that primarily affects the lungs,” explains Hariu. “However, it often secondarily affects the heart and can be fatal.”
Fortunately, heartworm disease is completely preventable. A veterinarian can prescribe a monthly medication that will prevent heartworm disease and its devastating effects.
As with other conditions, many of the heart diseases in cats and dogs are hereditary.
“Certain diseases have known genetic mutations that can cause the problem,” notes Hariu. “Other diseases do not have specific mutations worked out yet, but are known to be passed on through breeding.”
Hariu recommends consulting with veterinarians prior to breeding because they can help owners make an informed and responsible decision. Any pet that has a congenital heart disease should not be used for breeding.
Any dog can be born with or develop heart disease; however, certain breeds are predisposed to a heart condition.
Hariu explains that chronic valve disease is one of the most common acquired heart diseases in middle-aged to older small dog breeds and is prevalent in the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Dachshunds, Pomeranians, miniature Schnauzers and Chihuahuas.
Dilated cardiomyopathy is another acquired heart disease that develops in middle-aged, large-breed dogs like the Doberman Pinscher, Great Dane, Great Pyrenees and Irish Wolfhound. Arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopthay is an acquired heart disease with at least one known causative genetic mutation. It typically affects Boxers; however, Pit Bulls or English bulldogs can also be affected.
According to Hariu, the three most common congenital heart diseases seen in dogs are patent ductus arteriosus (PDA), subaortic stenosis (SAS) and pulmonic stenosis (PS). PDA tends to occur in small-dog breeds, such as the Bichon Frise, Maltese, and toy Poodle; however, larger breeds like the German Shepard are also predisposed. In contrast, SAS typically occurs in larger breeds such as the Boxer, German Shepard, Golden Retriever and Newfoundland. Both large- and small-dog breeds are predisposed to PS and the most commonly affected are the English Bulldog, French Bulldog, Beagle, Boxer, Mastiff and Chihuahua.
Some common precursors of heart problems to look for in a pet are breathing difficulty, coughing, decreased exercise, weakness, lethargy and episodes of collapsing. If any of these signs occur at home, a veterinarian should be contacted for a full health evaluation.
If heart problems do exist, there are several procedures in modern veterinary medicine that can treat or ease the symptoms of heart disease.
“While some heart diseases can only be medically managed, some can be helped with non-invasive, catheter-based procedures or surgery,” explains Hariu. “For instance, PDA is a condition in which there is an abnormal connection between two heart vessels that should normally be separated. In many cases, a catheter can be used to non-invasively place a device across this abnormal connection, effectively closing it.
“Some acquired heart diseases can also be helped with procedures,” says Hariu. “For example, some heart rhythm problems in which the heart beats too slowly can be effectively managed by placement of a pacemaker.”
Receiving yearly checkups with a veterinarian, maintaining a healthy and well-balanced diet, exercising regularly, and keeping pets regular on vaccines are the best ways to promote a healthy heart and the well-being of a pet.
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