Heart Failure in Dogs – Causes, Symptoms, Therapy

What is heart failure?

Heart failure occurs when the heart is no longer able to pump enough blood into the circulatory system. As a result, the organism is insufficiently supplied with blood and oxygen. The body responds to this condition by narrowing the blood vessels. Heart failure is relatively common in dogs and can be inherited genetically or acquired later in life. Acquired heart failure is usually caused by a disease of the heart valves or the heart muscle.

This is how the cardiopulmonary system works

In the lungs, the blood is enriched with oxygen. The oxygenated blood flows from the lungs into the left side of the heart, first into the atrium and then into the ventricles. From there, with every beat of the heart, it is pumped into the body and thus into the brain, muscles, and other important organs. The used, oxygen-poor blood flows out of the body back into the right side of the heart, first into the atrium and then into the main chamber. With every heartbeat, the used blood is pumped from the right side of the heart into the lungs, where it is enriched with oxygen and sent back to the left side of the heart. In this cycle, the heart valves take on the function of “valves”. They ensure that the blood can flow in the right direction. Are the heart valves abnormal? they no longer close properly – the blood flow is disturbed. The process is also disturbed when the heart muscle is weak and cannot pump enough blood into the circulatory system – this leads to problems such as coughing and/or shortness of breath.

What are the causes of heart failure?

Chronic valvular disease is the leading cause of heart failure in dogs. It mostly occurs in older dogs and smaller breeds like poodles and dachshunds. The heart valve is thickened and does not close completely with each heartbeat. This causes blood to flow back into the vessels and organs. If the valve disease has existed for a long time, the atrium and ventricle enlarge. The disease is usually rather insidious.

So-called “dilated cardiomyopathy” is another condition that can lead to heart failure. This occurs mainly in younger to middle-aged larger dogs, such as the Dobermann, Boxer, or Great Dane. The heart muscle becomes thin and weak and can no longer pump. The disease usually takes a fairly rapid course.

Of course, as with humans, other factors such as age and body weight also play a decisive role in dogs. The risk of heart disease increases with age and obesity. It is all the more important to feed your dog a healthy diet, offer it enough exercise in the fresh air, and take it to the veterinary practice for a regular check-up.

What symptoms of heart failure can pet owners recognize?

Dogs with heart disease may appear tired and listless. Perhaps the food bowl often remains untouched or the dog has already lost weight? Shortness of breath, coughing, or fatigue can occur after just short walks. In advanced diseases, these symptoms appear even at rest. In dramatic cases, this leads to collapse or fainting spells because the brain is no longer supplied with sufficient oxygen. Accumulation of fluid in the body cavities is reflected in a thick, barrel-shaped abdomen.

What options does the vet have to diagnose heart failure?

During a routine examination, your veterinarian can already detect the first signs of heart failure. These are pale mucous membranes, congested veins, or a fluid-filled, swollen abdomen. Listening to the heart and lungs is crucial. If the vet detects an abnormal heart murmur early on, this can be an important indication of valve disease, even though the dog does not yet show any symptoms of heart failure. A heart murmur is caused by blood swirling around the heart valves when they no longer close properly. This is often the first finding of heart disease.

With the help of further examinations such as X-rays, heart ultrasound, or ECG, a clear diagnosis of the underlying heart disease is then possible. Advanced heart failure shows an enlarged heart, an irregular heart rhythm, impaired kidney function, or fluid accumulation in the lungs or other organs.

What are the treatment options for heart failure?

If there is any suspicion, the pet owner can support the therapy by the veterinarian by carefully observing the dog. For example, an increase in respiratory rate is a good indicator of worsening heart disease. The respiratory rate of the dog at rest should not exceed 40 breaths per minute. A breath is characterized by the rise and fall of the chest.

Although there is no cure for heart failure, targeted and early drug treatment can enable the dog to live a longer and, above all, more carefree life. It is about relieving the heart in its work by expanding the blood vessels and strengthening the heart muscle and thus improving the strength of the weakened heart. This reduces the resistance against which the heart must pump. The diseased heart has to exert less force and can again supply the organism with oxygen more effectively.

The therapy of heart failure in dogs consists of several components that are used depending on the severity. Several effective and well-tolerated medications are available to the veterinarian for a good therapy that is adapted to the respective clinical picture. Regular daily and lifelong administration of medication is crucial.

Accompanying measures

Exercise: Adequate exercise is very important for a dog with heart disease, but it is important to ensure that the activities are regular and consistent. It is healthier for the patient, for example, to do this for half an hour several times a day. The evenness of the movement is also important. We, therefore, recommend going for walks, swimming, and running slowly next to the bike, but playing with the ball exuberantly is not so well suited.

Diet: A healthy diet and a normal weight can help to maintain the quality of life of a dog with heart disease over the years. Some nutrients and nutrient combinations have heart-friendly properties and are beneficial to health. Special food is therefore offered for dogs with heart disease. This is mostly low in sodium. Other supplementary feeds contain highly concentrated omega-3 fatty acids. These are important essential fatty acids that the dog cannot produce itself, but which are of great importance for heart health. The vet can provide information about this.

Ava Williams

Written by Ava Williams

Hello, I'm Ava! I have been writing professionally for just over 15 years. I specialize in writing informative blog posts, breed profiles, pet care product reviews, and pet health and care articles. Prior to and during my work as a writer, I spent about 12 years in the pet care industry. I have experience as a kennel supervisor and professional groomer. I also compete in dog sports with my own dogs. I also have cats, guinea pigs, and rabbits.

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