Understanding Heart Disease: Do Pets and Humans Have Anything in Common?

Sleeping Dog
Dogs and cats with heart disease typically show signs of lagging energy, sometimes sleeping more than usual.

What Are the Symptoms of Heart Disease?

Humans: Symptoms vary depending on the disease, but patients with atherosclerosis often have chest pain and shallow breathing. And, of course, there’s the big wakeup call of a heart attack.

Dogs and Cats: Dogs typically show signs of lagging energy, trouble breathing or getting comfortable and a chronic cough, which may be low-pitched. They can also collapse or faint.

Cats may also get lethargic, sleeping more than usual. And 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.

For both species, you should pay attention to how hard or fast your dog or cat breathes while asleep, so that breathing patterns aren’t influenced by panting or purring.

How Do You Test for Heart Disease?

Humans: Doctors can choose from a variety of diagnostic testing, including blood tests, electrocardiograms and imaging tests, such as CT scans.

Dogs and Cats: The first line of defense is a common tool: the stethoscope. For dogs, Dr. Bonagura notes, “a stethoscope screening is the most effective way to identify congenital heart defects and acquired heart valve disease.” But it’s harder to detect heart muscle diseases with a stethoscope, so Dr. Bonagura says that an echocardiogram may be necessary.

Kitties present a tougher diagnosis. “In healthy cats, the stethoscope is still useful but less so because many cats have innocent heart murmurs,” Dr. Bonagura explains. “More importantly, some cats have cardiomyopathy but no murmur or heart sound abnormality.” In some situations, a blood test may help a vet decide whether to pursue an echocardiogram or another diagnostic exam.

Which Medications Effectively Treat Heart Disease?

Humans: Depending on the type of heart disease, doctors may prescribe a blood-pressure medication, a blood thinner or a cholesterol-lowering drug, among other choices. Patients often use beta blockers to induce the heart to beat more slowly, and angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors to relax blood vessels.

Dogs and Cats: “Many of the drugs used in animals are ‘extra-label’ uses of human drugs,” Dr. Bonagura says. Treatments vary according to the animal and type of heart disease — but research on their effectiveness is still thin in some cases. Evidence indicates, however, that dogs with congestive heart failure respond well to a drug cocktail that includes a diuretic, an ACE inhibitor and a drug to improve heart muscle contractions.

Research on feline heart disease treatments is even scarcer. From his own survey of specialist cardiologists, Dr. Bonagura found that most of them prescribe a beta blocker for otherwise healthy cats with obstructive HCM. Cats with congestive heart failure usually take a diuretic and an ACE inhibitor. Since cats with heart disease have a high risk for blood clots, they may also be prescribed an anti-platelet drug.

Can a Healthy Diet Help Prevent Heart Disease?

Humans: Diet can have a big impact on heart health. Eating foods laden with saturated and trans fats can raise cholesterol and contribute to plaque buildup in the arteries, while whole grains can act to lower cholesterol and help prevent heart disease.

Dogs and Cats: A healthy diet does not significantly help dogs and cats avoid heart disease. But Dr. Bonagura stresses that you should always discuss your pet's diet with your veterinarian if your dog or cat begins to take heart medication. A dog with congestive heart failure, for example, should eat reduced-sodium meals and treats.

Does Exercise Help Combat Heart Disease?

Humans: Definitely!

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.

Dr. Bonagura points out one tandem benefit, too: “Dogs help us in this regard because many people get more exercise simply because they care for a dog!”

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