Researchers at Tufts University’s school of veterinary medicine have developed two quality of life surveys for dogs and cats suffering from heart disease. Known as "FETCH" (Functional Evaluation of Cardiac Health) and "CATCH" (Cats’ Assessment Tool for Cardiac Health), the surveys ask owners to rank aspects of their dog’s or cat’s health on a scale of 0 to 5. Veterinarians are then able to assess the animal’s quality of life, which may inform decisions about treatment, nutrition, or even euthanasia.

If you have a dog or cat that has been diagnosed with heart disease, your veterinarian can contact the veterinarians at Tufts for a copy of the survey and information about how to interpret the results. In the meantime, here is some basic information about heart disease in pets.

What is heart disease?

Heart disease in animals is either congenital (they are born with it) or acquired (not present at birth but developing at a later date). Congenital disease is usually seen in younger animals, whereas acquired heart disease is generally diagnosed in older dogs and cats. Small breed dogs often develop leaky heart valves due to degenerative changes. Cats and large breed dogs are more likely to develop heart muscle dysfunction. Heart disease is often diagnosed with X-rays, an electrocardiogram (ECG), and an echocardiogram (ultrasound of the heart).

Congestive heart failure, a consequence of many types of heart disease, is usually a result of the heart’s inability to pump blood forward in a normal manner. Stress is placed on the heart muscle and valves and a back-up of blood may occur in the lungs and/or liver resulting in abnormal fluid accumulations in the chest or abdomen.

How is heart disease treated?

There are many treatments available for heart disease, each one focusing on the underlying cause of the disease. Medications, surgery, and other therapies (e.g., pacemakers) may be directed at correcting an irregular heartbeat, increasing the amount of blood pumped by the heart with each beat, or decreasing the amount of fluid retained in the lungs and abdomen. A diet low in salt can also be an important component of therapy for congestive heart failure, as it helps minimize fluid retention in the body.

What symptoms can present as heart disease progresses?

Early Stages

  • reduced activity/lethargy
  • increased sleeping
  • exercise intolerance
  • coughing — especially at night or early morning
  • weight loss
  • diarrhea
  • possible fainting spells

Late Stages

  • persistent early stages
  • severe weight loss
  • distended abdomen
  • vomiting/diarrhea
  • blue-gray colored gums
  • leg swelling
  • difficulty swallowing
  • difficulty breathing
  • fluid lung sounds
  • unable to rest
  • unable to rise

Crisis — Immediate veterinary assistance needed regardless of the disease

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Prolonged seizures
  • Uncontrollable vomiting/diarrhea
  • Sudden collapse
  • Profuse bleeding — internal or external
  • Crying/whining from pain*

*It should be noted that most animals will instinctually hide their pain. Vocalization of any sort that is out of the ordinary for your pet may indicate that his pain and anxiety has become too much for him to bear. If your pet vocalizes due to pain or anxiety, please consult with your tending veterinarian immediately.

What is the prognosis for heart disease?

If caught early enough, pets with heart disease can be treated and often will live for many years after their diagnosis. There are times, however, that the disease is so severe and function is so compromised that a pet’s quality of life is no longer satisfactory. A personalized treatment plan is important to slow the progression of heart disease. Talk to your veterinarian regarding the best treatment protocol for your pet.

© 2011 Home to Heaven, P.C. Content may not be reproduced without written consent from Home to Heaven, P.C.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: Tired Dog by Alex94tay / via Flickr