Heart Failure

Seen in any breed or gender, congestive heart failure (CHF) is one of the most serious canine and feline heart conditions. Congestive heart failure is characterized by the heart’s inability to circulate enough blood to meet the body’s demands. This impacts the health of other organs, including that of the liver, kidneys, and lungs.

CHF is often the end result of heart disease caused by valvular insufficiency. Left side valvular disease causes blood to accumulate in the lungs or abdomen (though this is less common in cats). Right side valvular disease causes blood to back up in the large veins coming into the heart. This causes the heart to pump faster and work harder, which eventually causes the heart to enlarge. As the heart muscle gets thicker, it decreases the volume of blood that can be pumped. This entire consequence is a vicious cycle, again causing the heart to work harder and continue to enlarge.

A pet with early congestive heart failure can continue to function normally for months without exhibiting any outward signs of something being wrong; therefore, it can be difficult for an owner to tell that a serious cardiovascular condition exists.

Signs of congestive heart failure: 

  • Bloating, distended abdomen.
  • Coughing at night or during increased activity. 
  • Decreased activity level. 
  • Easily tiring. 
  • Fainting.
  • Lack of appetite.
  • Pacing and restlessness in bed.
  • Rapid breathing. 
  • Unexplained weight loss.

Diagnosis of congestive heart failure

Identifying the cause of congestive heart failure is often an involved process. Diagnosis begins with a full physical examination, during which the veterinarian can find key indicators of congestive heart failure, including a raspy sound in the lungs when breathing or a subdued sounding heartbeat. Following the physical, there are several tests we may perform:

  • Blood pressure measurement – high blood pressure suggests CHF.
  • Echocardiogram (ultrasound of the heart) – allows the veterinarian to visualize valvular deformities, thickened or thinning of the cardiac muscle, and valvular leakage.
  • Electrocardiogram – measures electric impulses of the heart.
  • X-rays – can depict fluid build-up in the abdomen or lungs. Can also show an enlarged heart.

Depending on specific indicators, other tests can be performed, including heartworm tests in dogs and feline leukemia virus tests in cats. We will determine which tests your pet needs based upon the results of their physical exam.

Treating congestive heart failure

While there remains no cure for congestive heart failure, the ability to treat its symptoms depends on the severity and causes. The goal of treatment is to enable a pet’s body to compensate for its enlarged heart, thus preventing further damage. Most often, CHF is treated on an out-patient basis unless breathing is extremely difficult, in which case a pet may need to be placed on oxygen therapy and supportive care.

There are several medications that might be prescribed to help improve a pet’s quality of life. Depending on the amount of fluid in the chest, a diuretic may be necessary to aid with drying out the bodily tissues. Alongside a diuretic, various vasodilators can improve blood flow, while other drugs can improve the strength of the heart. We will determine which medications are best for your pet’s needs. Usually it is beneficial for all CHF patients to limit their sodium intake, as salt can increase the amount of water in the blood vessels and body tissues.

If you have any questions about congestive heart failure or would like to discuss any health concerns with our staff, contact our office today.

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