We’ve all heard that ominous phrase “congestive heart failure” but what does it mean exactly? What does it mean if your dog is diagnosed with it? Congestive heart failure in dogs is not uncommon, especially in geriatric dogs; So if you are the pet parent of a dog who is up in age, it’s important to know the signs of this disease, and what you can do about it.
Your dog’s heart (much like your heart) is a highly specialized muscular organ that pumps blood all throughout his circulatory system by way of rhythmic dilation and contraction. Simply put, your dog’s heart is divided into two pumps which join forces with the lungs to bring oxygen and nourishment to all parts of his body. This miraculous process also aids in the removal of waste from his normal metabolism.
It’s easy to understand why the heart is such a vital organ and why a healthy heart is essential for a healthy life. But what happens when heart disease occurs, as so often happens in the normal aging process of both humans and animals?
Congestive Heart Failure (CHF) ~ In Layman’s Terms
Congestive heart failure in dogs refers to the inability of the dog’s heart to pump adequate blood throughout his body. The heart is a muscular organ and muscles do weaken, either due to a biological defect, an outside stimulus (such as an infection), or simply over the course of time.
‘Heart failure’ means that the heart muscle is weakened to the point that it can’t pump efficiently and so cannot support the needs of the body for blood and oxygen. ‘Congestive’ refers to a respiratory blockage, (ranging from mild to severe) which hinders breathing to some degree.
So the term “Congestive Heart Failure” (CHF) means a weakened heart muscle that leads to a buildup of surplus fluid in the lungs which can then seep into surrounding lung (or pulmonary) tissues. This results in what your veterinarian would call ‘pulmonary edema’ which simply means ‘fluid in the lungs’.
A buildup of fluid can also occur in the dog’s abdomen, giving him a potbellied or pregnant appearance. The veterinary term for this is ‘ascites’ which means ‘fluid in the abdomen’.
What are the Causes of Congestive Heart Failure in Dogs?
1.) Leaky Heart Valves is the most common cause of congenital heart failure in dogs. Your dog’s heart (just like your heart) has four chambers and is divided into right and left sides. Unoxygenated blood (or venous blood ~ veins are blue because the blood has no oxygen) returns from your dog’s body to the right atrium of his heart. From there it is pumped to the right ventricle, through a one-way valve (whose purpose it is to keep the blood from flowing backward).
From there the blood is pumped to your dog’s lungs (via the pulmonary artery) to be enriched with oxygen. Rich red oxygenated blood then flows back to the left atrium (upper left chamber of his heart); From there it is pumped into the left ventricle through the mitral valve, whose very important job is to not leak. Oxygen rich blood is then pumped back to your dog’s body to nourish cells, tissues, and organs.
There is high pressure created when the left ventricle contracts to pump life-giving oxygenated blood back to the body; Consequently, the mitral valve tends to ‘wear out’, especially over time, with the natural aging process. This ‘wearing out’ is so common that the condition is called Mitral Valve Insufficiency (MVI) and is responsible for 80% of the cases of congestive heart failure in dogs.
Mitral valve insufficiency (MVI) is more common in small breed dogs than in large breeds. It begins as left-sided congestive heart failure, but if left untreated, the disease may progress to both sides of the heart.
2.) Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) is a type of heart disease that is characterized by an enlarged heart muscle that cannot function properly. With cardiomyopathy, both upper and lower chambers of the heart become enlarged although one side is usually more severely affected.
Dilated cardiomyopathy occurs more frequently with age, typically affecting dogs between five and ten years old. It is also more common in certain breeds. The incidence of DCM is most common in Boxers, Cocker Spaniels, Doberman Pinschers, Irish Wolfhounds, St. Bernards, Afghan Hounds, and Great Danes.
An enlarged heart muscle greatly interferes with the organ’s ability to pump blood efficiently, and dilated cardiomyopathy often leads to congestive heart failure in dogs.
3.) Infection. The term Endocarditis means infection and inflammation of the heart, especially the heart valves. The cause is usually bacteria, though occasionally a fungus or rickettsia may be responsible.
Bacterial infections in other parts of the dog’s body can cause the development of endocarditis. A good example of this is periodontal (dental) disease, especially common in older small breed dogs. Plaque-forming bacteria enters the bloodstream from the mouth and loves to settle on the canine heart valves; So it’s important that pet parents stay aware of the condition of their dog’s teeth and gums.
Infections in the uterus, prostate, kidneys or even skin infections, can all be associated with heart valve infection and inflammation. Immunosupressive drugs such as corticosteroids (like prednisone), can also increase the risk of endocarditis.
4.) Heartworm Disease is another canine condition that can lead to congestive heart failure if not prevented or treated. Canine heartworm disease is exactly what its name implies: A nasty disease that can severely affect your dog’s heart because of actual, spaghetti-like worms living in it and feeding off it.
Heartworms are spread by mosquitoes, an insect that is virtually everywhere on our planet.
If heartworms reach adulthood in a dog’s body, their lifespan is 5 to 7 years. Mature males reach up to 6 inches in length, and females can grow to twice that. I don’t think there is any further need to explain how this condition can lead to congestive heart failure in dogs, but the good news is that heartworm disease can be treated, and more importantly, prevented. Your veterinarian should inform you about this disease when your dog is a puppy and start a prevention program.
5.) Congenital Birth Defects account for less than 1% of canine heart conditions leading to congestive heart failure in dogs. However, when a genetic heart defect is found in a pup from a dog breeder, the breeding practices of that line should be stopped because of the potential for genetic transmission to offspring that may affect an entire breeding population.
6.) Other Contributing Factors to Canine CHF are such things as obesity, lack of exercise and poor diet (which incidentally, are also major contributing factors to heart disease in humans). Thankfully a dog can’t smoke a cigarette with his human companion, but secondhand smoke is nonetheless damaging to his vital organs.
What are the Symptoms of CHF in My Dog?
- He coughs frequently. This can be a deep dry cough or a productive (wet and rattly) cough. Sometimes he spits up with it.
- His energy is sapped. All he wants to do is lie around.
- He has difficulty breathing. Instead of just breathing, he pants most of the time.
- He’s tired but he has difficulty getting in a comfortable position to sleep. He used to sleep on his side, now he lays upright on his stomach.
- He used to be a chow-hound but food doesn’t interest him much anymore.
- His gums are a whitish-pink or bluish-pink instead of a healthy pink.
- He’ll skip the walk around the block this week. Exercise is too hard.
- He is developing a potbelly. You know he hasn’t been guzzling beer and you know he’s not pregnant so….?
- He faints. Yes dogs have fainting spells. The veterinary term is ‘syncope’ or ‘syncopal attack’. The animal temporarily loses consciousness due to the lack of normal blood flow to the brain.
These signs are all red flags that your precious pet is in distress and needs help. A visit to your veterinarian is the next step.
How Will the Vet Diagnose my Dog?
Congestive heart failure in dogs is a complicated disease and in order to determine the best treatment for your dog, the vet will want to run certain tests. An accurate diagnosis is an important guide to the extent and type of treatment necessary to treat each patient with CHF.
First of all, the vet will want to listen to the dog’s heart and lungs with a stethoscope. The medical term for this is auscultation.
A heartworm antigen test should be run since heartworms are a major cause of canine CHF.
The good doctor will also run blood and urine tests to see if any other vital organs are affected, since kidney and liver function can be impaired in heart disease patients.
Chest films (X-rays) will be taken to help the veterinarian evaluate the heart and lungs and show any abnormalities.
An ultrasound allows the doctor to directly observe the heart’s contractions and how effective they are. It can evaluate the size and thickness of each heart chamber and measure the heart’s pumping efficiency.
The vet will likely order an ECG (electrocardiogram) to determine the heart’s rate and rhythm and measure its electrical activity. This will show any abnormal rhythms (arrhythmia) and allows the vet to evaluate them.
Treating Congestive Heart Failure in Dogs
After your veterinarian has gathered all the needed information from these diagnostic tests, he or she will recommend the best course of treatment for your dog. Treatments for dogs with congestive heart failure can vary greatly depending on the severity of the disease and its underlying causes.
Unfortunately, it’s not possible to totally reverse CHF or completely repair the damage to the heart. Although in rare cases surgery may be warranted to clear a blockage, generally it is not considered a viable option in treating this disease.
If the underlying cause for CHF in your dog is a bacterial infection or heartworms, then medication may correct the problem, especially if the condition is caught early enough.
If your dog’s congestive heart failure cannot be corrected with medication, the vet will likely recommend ways to reduce fluid around the heart so that it can function more efficiently. Another goal of CHF treatments is to alleviate the symptoms for your pet, giving him relief and keeping him comfortable.
Inodilators: Inodilators are fairly new medications but are providing significant relief for dogs with congestive heart failure as well as extending life expectancy. This drug strengthens canine cardiac muscle and allows blood to flow more freely through surrounding vessels. (Here’s a Heads-Up: This drug can be quite expensive if purchased at the veterinary clinic. You can probably get a better price at one of the online Vet Pharmacies.)
ACE Inhibitors: ACE (Angiotensin Converting Enzyme) Inhibitors dilate the dog’s blood vessels, which in turn reduces blood pressure. They also increase blood flow, decreasing the workload for your dog’s heart. Ace inhibitors are a common treatment for congestive heart failure in dogs and are often prescribed along with other treatments.
Beta-Blockers: Beta-Blockers reduce high blood pressure and slow the heart rate, decreasing the body’s demand for oxygen.
Digoxin: Another drug commonly used to treat congestive heart failure in dogs, digoxin aids in heart contraction.
Calcium Channel Blockers: Calcium channel blockers relax heart muscles and blood vessels. They also slow heart rate and increase the supply of oxygen and blood to the heart.
Diuretics: Also called “water pills,” diuretics help to remove some of the fluid build up associated with CHF. They increase the amount of salt and water expelled from the dog’s body as urine.
Diet Change: In addition to a drug treatment program, the vet may also recommend a diet change, especially if your dog’s diet has been peppered with people “treats.” There are canine diets specifically designed to support heart health. A mild exercise routine may also be recommended, especially if your pet is obese and needs to drop a few pounds.
Your Role is Essential for His Health and Happiness
Your veterinarian may prescribe any combination of the above treatment options for CHF depending on the “Big Picture” shown by the diagnostic tests. He or she will choose the procedure best suited to help manage your dog’s symptoms and to slow down the progression of the disease.
But it’s up to you to follow the regimen to ensure that you and your beloved canine companion can spend as much time together as possible, comfortable and happy.
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