Heart Health Awareness Month is right around the corner, beginning February 1st. While technically concerned with human heart health, I think it’s vital that we expand the scope of the conversation to address canine and feline heart health, too.
Most people have a basic understanding of the risks of heart disease in humans, but when it comes to the heart health of our pet kids, that area remains a mystery to many.
In the following seven frequently-asked questions, we’ll consider the parallels between all three species (humans, canines and felines), to better understand heart disease.
How Widespread is Heart Disease?
Humans: In America, heart disease is the #1 cause of death. Annually, about 600,000 people die of heart disease, one in every four deaths.
Dogs and Cats: Although reliable statistics are not readily available for adult felines or canines, heart disease is not the pressing problem that it is for humans. That being said, heart problems are still common, with one in ten dogs developing valvular heart disease. As with many health issues, the risk for heart disease increases with age, especially for dogs over the age of nine (the age varies from breed to breed). When it comes to cats, tracking heart disease proves extremely challenging, as felines present virtually no physical symptoms from this condition.
What’s the Most Common Form of Heart Disease?
Humans: In adults, coronary artery disease is the most prevalent kind of heart disease. The main type involves plaque build-up in the arteries, which affects their ability to deliver blood to the heart. As the layers of plaque thicken and harden, blood flow to the heart is further restricted.
Dogs and Cats: The biggest difference here is that pet kids are not at-risk for coronary artery disease. While that’s good news, there are other medical conditions that dogs and cats face.
Dogs can suffer from mitral valve disease or dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). Mitral valve disease describes a condition where a valve on the left side of the heart fails to close properly. The problem with this is that blood pools into the left atrium, rather than exiting the left ventricle. Older, small-breed dogs are more likely to develop mitral valve disease, and the condition is only worsened by periodontal disease. DCM weakens the heart muscle so that it pumps less vigorously and regularly, a condition more common in large breeds.
Cats, on the other hand, are prone to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM). Here, the walls of the heart thicken and the muscle becomes less flexible. The unfortunate result is that the heart pumps less blood. HCM is a genetic disease that is found in both pure and mixed breed cats.
What are the Symptoms of Heart Disease?
Humans: Symptoms vary depending on the disease, but patients with coronary artery disease often have chest pain, arm pain and shallow breathing. And, of course, there’s the big wake-up call of a heart attack.
Dogs and Cats: Dogs typically exhibit signs such as low energy, trouble getting comfortable, labored breathing and a low-pitched, chronic cough. On occasion, they might actually collapse or faint. Cats may also become lethargic, as well as sleeping or hiding more than is typical. Often, cats will also lose their appetite. If a blood clot is swept from the heart and travels down through the aorta, felines can suffer a painful, sudden paralysis in their hind legs.
Important note: If you experience any of these symptoms, seek medical assistance immediately. And, if your companion animal experiences any of these symptoms, seek veterinary assistance immediately.
How Do You Test for Heart Disease?
Humans: Doctors can choose from a variety of diagnostic testing, including blood exams, treadmill tests, electrocardiograms and imaging analyses.
Dogs and Cats: For veterinarians, a stethoscope is the most effective way to identify heart disease. That being said, it is difficult to detect an issue absent a murmur. Sometimes an x-ray, ECG or echocardiogram may shed light on an undiagnosed problem.
What Medications are used for Treatment?
Humans: If you were to be diagnosed with heart disease, doctors might prescribe a blood-pressure medication, a blood thinner or a cholesterol-lowering drug (among other things). Patients often use medications to make the heart beat more slowly and to relax blood vessels.
Dogs and Cats: Many of the drugs we use are also used by dogs and cats. Treatments vary according to the animal and kind of heart disease. The important thing to note is that there are treatments available, and new research is presenting new avenues for improvement.
Can Diet Help to Prevent Heart Disease?
Humans: Diet has a big influence on heart health. Eating foods heavy with saturated and trans-fats can raise cholesterol levels and contribute to plaque build-up in the arteries. Conversely, a diet rich in omega fatty acids, whole grains and fiber can help to lower bad cholesterol levels and help prevent heart disease.
Dogs and Cats: A healthy diet has not been proven to significantly alter the rates of canine and feline heart disease … however much more research has been done on humans in this regard. It’s hard to overstate the importance of quality food and your companion animal’s quality of life.
What About Exercise?
Humans: Yes, definitely! Exercise lowers the risk of heart attack and reduces stress, another risk factor for heart disease.
Dogs and Cats: The kinds of heart disease commonly found in cats and dogs can't be avoided through exercise. But, as with people, regular exercise will improve overall health and help prevent obesity in pets.
And don’t forget what researchers, healing experts and therapy animals have been demonstrating for decades … that by taking care of a dog or a cat, you’ll also be taking care of your heart.
Thank you for all you do to make the world a better place for companion animals.
Dr. Jane Bicks