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An early and subtle warning sign of heart disease is reluctance to exercise. Too often, though, owners chalk that up to a dog’s increasing age, not realizing it could be a sign of heart failure. Tiring quickly in a young dog may signal a congenital condition such as patent ductus arteriosis, which can be repaired surgically.
Another sign of heart failure is rapid respiration. The normal canine respiration rate (the number of breaths a dog takes per minute) is 10 to 30, with the average being 24. It’s easy to check a dog’s respiration. When he’s at rest or sleeping, count the number of breaths he takes for 15 seconds. Multiply that number by 4 to get the number of breaths per minute. If it’s 35 or higher, and he's not panting from excess heat, your dog should see the veterinarian, pronto. Similarly, if your dog's breathing is labored, or you notice a bluish tint to his gums or tongue, see the vet right away.
Coughing, which is sometimes caused by a buildup of fluid in the lungs, can signal heart disease. The coughing may sound soft, as if your dog is clearing his throat. If it comes on suddenly or occurs after activity or at night, combined with a resting respiratory rate of 30 breaths or higher per minute, get it checked out right away.
As heart disease progresses, you may see more serious signs, especially if your dog is not being treated with medication. These include sudden weakness, loss of consciousness or fainting spells and abdominal enlargement from fluid accumulation.
You may also notice that your dog can’t seem to get comfortable when he lies down. He may not want to lie on soft surfaces such as the bed or your lap because they don’t offer enough support.
There’s no cure for most types of heart disease, but in many cases it can be managed with medication. The earlier it’s caught, the better. If your dog has a soft murmur and no signs, your veterinarian may recommend follow-up vet visits (maybe annually) and monitoring at home for signs that the condition may be worsening. Sometimes, a periodic checkup with the cardiologist is a good idea. As a murmur changes or the heart begins to enlarge, your vet may recommend more frequent exams, perhaps every six months. Dogs on certain medications typically need to have regular blood work to check kidney function and electrolyte levels. And if you notice any of the clinical signs described above, your dog should be seen immediately.
The good news is that even when heart disease is severe or congestive heart failure has developed, dogs who are treated may be able to have a high quality of life for a good amount of time.
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