Rachel Phelps will never forget the urgent call she got from her veterinarian shortly after she dropped off her beloved Westie, named Preston, for minor surgery to remove a lump.
“The vet was like, ‘Something happened. We put him under anesthesia, and suddenly his heartbeat plummeted,’” Rachel says. “I was in total shock. I felt like I couldn’t breathe.”
The medical team immediately brought Preston out of anesthesia, but his heart rate remained low. Rachel and her husband raced Preston from their veterinarian’s office to an animal emergency hospital for round-the-clock care. But after a couple of days, Preston’s heart was still only beating at half the rate it was supposed to. “We were so worried,” Rachel says.
So, the couple drove Preston from their home in Kentucky to the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital. That’s where board-certified cardiologist Ryan Fries took over Preston’s care, and Rachel soon learned her dog was one of the millions in the United States to be diagnosed with heart disease.
Heart issues in dogs
Heart disease is a general term for any issue that impairs the organ from pumping blood through a dog’s body the way it should. “You’re just saying there’s a disease of the heart,” Dr. Fries says. “There’s a whole lot of things that fall under that category.” Congenital heart problems, defects dogs are born with, are rarer than acquired issues, which dogs develop as they get older. “Dogs often have changes to their hearts, especially as they age,” Dr. Fries says.
As a dog matures, size might matter, too. Smaller pooches are more likely to develop leaky valves. Larger dogs are more prone to dilated cardiomyopathy, a disease that weakens the heart muscle. Both conditions affect the organ’s ability to work correctly and can result in congestive heart failure.
Certain breeds are also at greater risk of heart disorders. Dr. Fries found Preston’s sinus node, the area of the heart that regulates the rate it beats, wasn’t working properly. It’s called sick sinus syndrome and is common in Westies, like Preston, Boxers, Dachshunds, Miniature Schnauzers and Cocker Spaniels. Often, dogs show no indications of the ailment. “But once put under the stress of anesthesia, it really manifests,” Dr. Fries says. “We do see that sometimes; the first real signs of this problem occur during a sedative or an anesthetic event.”
Another common issue is a heart murmur. Veterinarians can often hear the abnormal sound using a stethoscope. “A heart murmur per se is not a disease itself, but rather an indicator that heart disease may be present and signals the need to consider follow-up testing,” says board-certified cardiologist Philip Fox from The Animal Medical Center in New York City. “It is important to realize that many animals have soft heart murmurs and live normal life spans.
Your dog’s heart health
Since most heart maladies develop as dogs age, there are some critical steps you can take to keep your pooch’s ticker ticking.
Test your dog for heartworm each year and keep them on prevention. “Heartworm disease has been documented in all 50 states. It is important, now more than ever, to give heartworm prevention on a year-round basis, even in colder climates where mosquitoes are inactive in winter,” says board-certified cardiologist Michelle Rose from the Animal Emergency and Referral Center of Minnesota.
If your dog isn’t on preventives, and a mosquito carrying worm larvae bites your dog, foot-long heartworms can grow by the hundreds in your dog’s heart and lungs. (Yup, downright disgusting!) The worms can cause severe damage and, if left untreated, even death.
Be sure your dog eats a complete and balanced diet suitable for their breed, age and medical needs. In 2018, when the FDA launched its investigation into certain pet food ingredients and possible links to heart disease, researchers focused on nutrition and its impact on a dog’s heart health. “Diet is extremely important. It’s huge,” Dr. Fox says. “Talk to your veterinarian about what foods they would recommend.”
Make sure your dog gets sufficient exercise and is not overweight. “It is also important, just like in humans, to keep dogs in good body condition, as excessive weight places additional strain on the heart,” Dr. Rose says.
One of the most critical things you can do is make sure your dog gets annual checkups. “Heart disease in dogs can often be detected during visits to the veterinarian that include a thorough medical history and detailed physical examination,” Dr. Fox says. “If a heart murmur, abnormal heart or lung sounds, or heart rate irregularity are detected, particularly if associated with symptoms, your veterinarian can consider a number of diagnostic tests.”
Some dogs may never need a cardiologist’s care, medication or surgery for a heart issue. But if they do need treatment, there are many available that can stop and delay the progression of heart disease. That’s why early detection is so important. “We can keep some dogs asymptomatic and feeling good for years,” Dr. Fries says. “There are some interventions we can do that can fix them. It depends on the disease.”
Preston gets a pacemaker
Dr. Fries considered Preston an excellent candidate to receive a pacemaker to regulate his heartbeat. “We use them for dogs just like people. It’s the same equipment,” he says.
Rachel is so thankful high-tech help is available for dogs with heart rate issues. The device will give Preston a new “leash” on life. “This pacemaker will allow Preston to enjoy his car rides to the pet store, play fetch with his favorite ball, try to chase squirrels at the park that he will never be able to catch and lay on the couch snuggling with us during movie nights,” she says. “But most importantly, hopefully, it will give us many more years to spend with Preston.
Signs of Heart Disease
Dr. Fox says to call your vet if you see these signs of heart disease in your dog:
❤ Decreased appetite
❤ New cough
❤ Difficulty breathing
❤ Weight loss
❤ Swollen abdomen
High Blood Pressure in Dogs
Did you know dogs get high blood pressure, too? Your veterinarian can use a blood pressure cuff to perform a reading just like when you go to the doctor’s office.
High blood pressure is usually caused by kidney disease, endocrine issues, diabetes and, potentially, obesity. “The heart’s job is to pump blood through all of the vessels. If a dog has high blood pressure, the heart has to work harder to overcome that,” Dr. Fries says. “Whenever we see high blood pressure, we want to manage that because it can cause detrimental changes to the heart over time. It can also exacerbate heart diseases we are trying to manage.”
Signs of hypertension include seizures, severe eye problems, circling, confusion, bloody urine and nose bleeds.
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