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Heart disease in our pets – Part 1: Valve disease

Dog Xray

In humans, as I’m sure you know, heart disease is a huge health problem causing suffering to billions across the globe. In many countries the commonest problem is coronary heart disease. This is where the arteries supplying blood to the heart get clogged up – a lot of the time due to poor lifestyle choices.

Heart disease is a big issue in the pet world too. But in dogs and cats the problem is not coronary heart disease due to too many chips and burgers. The commonest heart conditions we see are heart valve and heart muscle disease.

This blog concentrates on heart valve disease, and here is my blog on heart muscle disease.

What is that cough?
Ok so here’s a problem I see most days on my travels as a Sydney mobile vet. The phone call usually starts something like this…

“Our little terrier ‘Missy’ has been coughing for a few weeks and sometimes she’s retching like she’s got something in her throat. She doesn’t seem her old self – she doesn’t want to go for long walks anymore.”

These clinical signs could be many different diseases – but heart valve disease would be high up on the list. If I find a heart murmur when I listen to ‘Missy’s’ chest, there is a chance I’ve found the cause of the problem.

In patients like ‘Missy’ one of the valves deep inside the heart starts to shrivel up as part of the ageing process. We don’t know why this happens – but it’s not caused by diet or lifestyle.

As the valve shrivels it starts to leak. Each time the heart pumps, some of the blood goes back to the lungs where it came from instead of going forwards into the body.

This means
1. The heart has to work harder to get the same amount of blood around the body which strains and damages it
2. The lungs get overloaded and can’t work so well
3. As the heart enlarges it presses on the airways so your pet feels like he has something in his throat

Is my dog predisposed?
Some breeds of dog are more likely to suffer with heart valve disease than others. In general small dogs like terriers are affected more. Cavalier King Charles Spaniels are at particularly high risk and can get this problem at a very young age.

Veterinary management
If we suspect heart disease we often need to arrange chest x-rays and blood tests to make sure the diagnosis is correct and rule out other problems.

We can’t fix the underlying valve problem, but we can make a big difference to your pet’s clinical problems and prolong good quality life using daily medications.

In many cases we use diuretics to dry out the lungs and some other specialised drugs to reduce the strain on the heart and slow down the progression of the disease. We also explain how best to exercise your dog to help with management of the problem.

In many cases a combination of lifestyle management and drugs has stabilised my patients for years so they can continue to enjoy a great quality of life.

Black dog sitting

Case Study

Connie, 14 year old Chihuahua, had a cough for quite a while but her owners were too scared to do xrays and investigate.

2 years ago they finally got up the courage to have a look, we took chest x-rays and lo and behold, I found the biggest heart I’d ever seen, and I’m not just describing her soul!

The x-rays also showed some fluid in the lungs. Connie was in heart failure. So we immediately started her on a carefully prescribed mix of medicines including diuretics and two medications that improve the heart function and later inhaled steroid puffers to help her airway function.

Because her heart disease was so advanced I expected the tables to give her perhaps a few months of extended life… but two years later and she still barks when I arrive at the house and definitely lets me know who is in charge!

Sometimes I think Connie will keep going forever! She is very fortunate to be given the full cocktail of medicines by her very dedicated family.

Most dogs in heart failure like this would not have lived so long – she really is the wonder dog!

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