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There are many different heart conditions that can occur in dogs. Some conditions such as cardiomyopathy are common in a wide variety of breeds while other conditions such as mitral valve problems are more specific to particular breeds.
Heart conditions are very difficult to diagnose as often the symptoms are rather subtle initially and the owner's often attribute the lack of energy and alertness typical of many of the conditions to be a natural function of aging. Since most heart conditions occur in older or middle age dogs this is perfectly normal presumption that often leads to the condition being too advanced for effective treatment once the condition has been diagnosed.
Common heart conditions and their causes, symptoms and treatments are listed below:
Dilated Cardiomyopathy - in this condition the chambers of the heart become swollen so that they are no longer able to pump. This prevents the blood from moving through the heart, affecting the dog in many different ways. This condition tends to be most problematic in male, middle-aged, large breed dogs that are relatively inactive, overweight, or have a history of parvovirus or taurine deficiencies. In some cases the disease seems to have no specific cause and may be genetically linked. The typical symptoms include breathing problems, lack of energy, weakness, coughing and distended abdomen with excessive fluid on the stomach and lungs. Often using drug therapies to help strengthen then heart as well as feeding diet supplements and low sodium diets may help prolong the dog's life but the condition itself cannot be cured and will eventually lead to death.
Congestive Heart Failure - this is often a catch all term for various conditions that can occur in the heart valves or muscles that lead to the heart not being able to pump blood to the body to sustain life. Various contributing conditions to congestive heart failure include injury to the heart, severe heartworm infestations, some genetic and chronic health conditions or malformations or tumors on or near the heart. Older and overweight dogs are more prone to congestive heart failure.
Treatment may include dietary supplements to strengthen the heart muscle such as Omega-3 and Omega-6, increased mild to moderate exercise regimes, diuretics to release fluid build up due to poor circulation and ACE inhibitors to increase the dilation of blood vessels to allow more volume of circulation. Congestive heart failure will often become most problematic if another disease or condition further stresses the dog's body or health in some fashion.
Heart Valve Disease - the most common heart condition amongst toy and small breeds of dogs is mitral valve disease and is usually seen in about 60% of older toy and small breeds over eight years of age. There are several different types of valve disease which basically causes blood to shoot backwards or flow backwards through the lower chambers of the heart. This results in the dog showing signs of fatigue, dry hacking cough as the swollen heart presses against the windpipe as well as irregular heartbeats and irregular breathing patterns. Often this condition is worse when the dog is laying down flat on the ground or is very active or exerting themselves.
The heart valves may also become infected, often through poor dental care that exposes the blood and circulatory systems to infections that develop in the gums. This infection can then attack the already weakened heart valves leading to serious complications. Antibiotics, diuretics to relieve fluid build up on the heart as well as ACE inhibitors to increase blood flow can all be used to treat and manage this condition.
Congenital heart disease - this can be any number of conditions that lead to a puppy being born with a misshapen or defective heart. Often these conditions, if severe, result in immediate death of the puppy or death shortly after birth. In some situations the defect may be small and not become problematic until the heart is stressed through disease or normal growth and development.
Some congenital heart diseases such as various kinds of stenosis, which causes narrowing of the specific area of the heart or heart valve, or shunts between the valves and chamber that fail to close properly, can be repaired by surgical procedures. Most vets are not experienced enough or specialized in the practice to perform these types of exacting procedures but many animal research facilities or vets that are highly specialized may be able too perform these operations.
Check with your vet to determine if a specialist should be involved. It is important for owners to understand the cost of the procedure as well as the prognosis for the dog or puppy if the procedure is successful before making the final decision.
Typical signs of heart problems in dogs
The most typical signs or symptoms of heart problems in dogs are seen when the dog is over the age of seven. At this time the owner may notice the dog has a heavy, hacking dry cough that seems to become worse at night when the dog is inactive. In addition the dog will also show a lack of energy and may even try to get out of going on once highly anticipated walks and outings. Since heart problems are typically progressive, this may be mistaken for old age type behaviors that are normal for the dog. Usually older dogs are still active and interested in doing things; they just may tire more quickly.
The final symptom that is seen in most heart conditions is a decrease in appetite without any noticeable weight loss. The dog doesn't loose the weight because body fluid will continue to gather in the body as circulation decreases. Be very careful of any signs of weight gain or weight maintenance if the dog is no longer eating.
Most vets will routinely start more intensive heart check-ups when dogs reach about six years of age. Be sure to communicate to the vet any concerns you have about your older dogs energy level, breathing or appetite as these are often the only signs you may see that a heart condition is developing.
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