Congestive heart failure can be a devastating affliction. It’s estimated that about 10% of all dogs experience at least some symptoms of heart disease as do nearly three-quarters of all senior dogs.
What do you need to know about congestive heart failure (CHF) to help keep your dog as healthy as possible? Here are some signs your dog might be experiencing heart failure.
What is Congestive Heart Failure?
First, let’s talk about the medical specifics of CHF. In a nutshell, congestive heart failure is an inability of the heart to provide adequate circulation to meet the needs of a dog’s body. When the dog’s heart fails to deliver enough blood to the organs and extremities, that blood backs up into the lungs and/or abdomen. The blood literally “congests” the dog’s ability to breathe normally.
The failure can occur on both sides of the heart but is often restricted to either the left or right side of the body.
What Causes CHF?
CHF can be caused by a wide variety of factors. Just like people, dogs can be predisposed to congestive heart failure through genetics. Congenital heart defects, high blood pressure, heartworm, and a variety of other issues can lead to some symptoms of CHF. Other preexisting conditions that can lead to heart failure include fluid sacs around the heart, abnormal heart rhythm, heart valve infection, tumors, and even pregnancy.
It’s important to note that congestive heart failure can happen to any breed of dog at any age. That said, middle-aged and older dogs are more likely to suffer the effects of CHF, as are certain breeds such as Dachshunds, Boxers, Golden Retrievers, and Schnauzers.
Signs of Congestive Heart Failure?
How do you know when your dog is “in” congestive heart failure? The symptoms of CHF can come on gradually, worsening with time. It’s also possible for them to be acute and sudden. In some cases, dogs with particularly severe congestive heart failure may die spontaneously. If your dog is showing any signs of difficulty breathing or collapse, take him to the closest emergency veterinary clinic.
What should you look for if you suspect your dog might be in the stages of congestive heart failure?
- Difficulty breathing or rapid breathing
- Lethargy or apathy
- Increased tiredness during exertion
- Body weakness
- Gray or blue-ish colored gums
- Abdominal distention
- Sudden collapse
Notice any of the signs above? Consult with a veterinarian as soon as possible.
How Can CHF be Treated?
As serious as it sounds (and is), congestive heart failure can be treated to some degree. When caught early, CHF isn’t a death sentence for your dog and can be well controlled with medication. Plenty of dogs live long, healthy lives even with serious heart issues.
Before starting treatment, your veterinarian will assess your dog for the signs of congestive heart failure, primarily by listening to his lungs. She might order diagnostic tests such as blood or urine panels and even suggest your dog have an EKG or an echocardiogram.
Once CHF has been confirmed, you have options. If the heart failure is being caused by an underlying issue (like a heartworm infection), that issue is treated first; this often remedies the CHF. If the issue lies in a congenital heart defect, surgical repair may be an option. What’s most common is that heart failure can’t be completely “cured” but can be well-managed.
There are a number of medications veterinarians recommend for dogs with congestive heart failure. The most common are ACE inhibitors, although some dogs also benefit from diuretics, vasodilators, or positive inotropes. Most dogs who are put on medication to manage the symptoms of CHF stay on medication for the rest of their lives. Many dog parents also find that a low-sodium diet is helpful in alleviating many of the most persistent symptoms.
Ready to talk to a vet?
Congestive heart failure is serious business.