Heart Failure in Cats

Tiffany Paul, DVM
By Tiffany Paul, DVM on Jun. 7, 2022

In This Article


What Is Heart Failure in Cats?

Heart failure is a progressive condition in which the heart muscle is too weak to meet the body’s demands. To understand heart failure, it is important to know how the heart muscle works and what it does for your cat's body.

The heart pumps blood to various parts of the body such as the lungs, brain, kidneys, and limbs. The blood provides oxygen and other nutrients to body tissues. Blood circulation also helps to release waste from tissues by removing carbon dioxide.

When the heart is not functioning properly, it can affect every organ and muscle in the body. When there is heart failure, the heart has difficulty bringing enough oxygen to tissue and is slow in removing waste.

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Symptoms of Heart Failure in Cats

Heart failure usually starts as a progression of heart disease, with few symptoms to even suggest your cat is sick. Cats can play, eat normally, and have normal bowel movements early in heart disease. It is important to remember that heart disease is not heart failure, although heart disease may eventually lead to heart failure.

As heart disease advances, pet parents may start to notice some signs and symptoms. Cats may begin to cough, become lethargic, not eat as well, and even become out of breath or pant during normal activities such as walking or playing. If left undetected, this can develop into heart failure. If left unchecked, the condition is likely to be fatal.

If your cat is experiencing any symptoms of heart disease or failure, take them to a veterinarian immediately. If your cat appears to be healthy, a full physical exam is recommended annually with your veterinarian to detect early signs.

Causes of Heart Failure in Cats

Disease of the heart can be caused by birth defects, infections, other major organ problems, and changes in the anatomy of the heart that sometimes come with aging. Heart failure can be more common in Maine Coon Cats, Persians, and Ragdolls.

How Veterinarians Diagnose Heart Failure in Cats

At an early stage of heart disease, a physical exam by your veterinarian may be the only way to tell there is something wrong. Your vet may notice that your cat's heart sounds abnormal when listening with a stethoscope.

The cat may have a heart murmur, which lets the veterinarian know that there is blood moving through the heart in an abnormal direction. Blood should flow into the heart via just one entrance and out through one exit. If blood is allowed to move back in the opposite direction, it will cause a distinctive swishing sound.

During a physical exam, your veterinarian may also determine if your cat’s heart is beating too fast, too slowly, or with an irregular rhythm.  

To diagnose a problem with the heart, your veterinarian will likely want to do several tests including:

  • Bloodwork, which will test the function of most of the organs, including the thyroid and kidneys.
  • Chest radiographs (x-rays), which will let the vet check the heart size and the condition of the lungs. This is important, since the lungs and heart work closely together.
  • Blood pressure, to make sure your cat does not need to be treated for hypertension (high blood pressure). Hypertension can come from heart disease, but it can also contribute to heart disease.
  • An ultrasound of the heart, called an echocardiogram, which allows the doctor to see what may be causing an abnormal sound and measures how the heart is working.

None of the tests are invasive or painful, although some anxious cats may be more comfortable with sedation. Some cats with severe symptoms may require supplemental oxygen during testing. Some of these tests can be easily done with your local veterinarian, while others may need a veterinary cardiologist to fully diagnose the problem.

Treatment of Heart Failure in Cats

Once the condition has been diagnosed, medications may be used to help the heart function better, normalize the rhythm, or reduce blood pressure. Most of these medications can increase quality and quantity of life. Medications can come in a pill form, liquid form, or in gels that can be applied to a cat’s ears, called transdermal gels.

There are certain heart conditions that may need surgical repair, although these conditions occur infrequently. Most conditions that can be surgically fixed are from birth defects, and these surgeries can be curative.

If heart disease in cats is diagnosed early enough and properly treated, it delays the onset and can even prevent progression to heart failure.

Recovery and Management of Heart Failure in Cats

It is difficult to predict survival time in cats with heart failure. Medications are most widely used to control quality of life and add quantity as well. Modern medications are usually effective with proper patient monitoring. Your veterinarian will likely want to perform bloodwork frequently when medications are first started, to make sure your cat has the proper dose.

Your vet may teach you how to monitor the respiratory rate at home, and may ask for frequent checkups so they can listen to the heart. A prescription diet may be recommended so that your cat is eating what is best for this condition. Once the heart failure is under control, a cat will likely need these medications for the rest of their life, with annual monitoring.

If your cat has other medical conditions such as kidney disease, hypertension, or pulmonary disease, it can make treating the heart failure more complicated.

Many cats can recover from heart failure, but they need to be treated for life. Topics such as long-term prognosis, any additional medical conditions, long-term monitoring, and ease of medicating your cat should be discussed with your veterinarian to determine the best action plan.


Heart Failure in Cats FAQs

Can a cat recover from heart failure?

Yes. Cats can recover from heart failure, but most require lifelong medication.

What are the signs of heart failure?

Coughing, lethargy, rapid respiratory rate, difficulty breathing, and exercise intolerance can all be common signs of heart failure.

What are the final stages of congestive heart failure in cats?

The final stages of heart failure will result in difficulty breathing and coughing. If left untreated, heart failure can result in death.

Is heart failure in cats painful?

Heart failure is not believed to cause acute pain, but it can cause your cat to become very lethargic and have difficulty breathing.

Featured Image: iStock.com/Kateryna Kukota

Tiffany Paul, DVM


Tiffany Paul, DVM


Dr. Paul graduated from Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine in 2005. She has practiced small animal medicine happily...

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