An estimated 10 percent of dogs in the U.S. have heart disease. “Heart disease” is a catch-all term for a variety of serious degenerative cardiovascular problems. The most common type in dogs is valvular disease, which is most prevalent in small breed dogs over the age of 5; it accounts for ¾ of all canine cardiovascular disease cases. Preventable canine heartworm disease is the second most common form of heart disease in dogs.
Heart disease leads to congestive heart failure, which refers to the heart’s inability to continue meeting the demands of its crucial bodily functions. There is no way to reverse or cure congestive heart failure, and it is fatal.
As your hearing, guide, or service dog gets older, it’s important to keep up with regular bi-annual veterinary checkups, and to be on the lookout for warning signs of heart disease. Early detection can make an enormous difference in the progression of the disease and your assistance dog’s prognosis.
When a service, hearing, or guide dog is diagnosed with heart disease, it is time for her to be retired so that the focus can be on her care and comfort. Also, she will have physical activity restrictions to prevent undue stress on her cardiovascular system.
Signs and Symptoms of Heart Disease in Dogs
In the earliest stages, there may be no noticeable indications of heart disease in dogs. However, as the disease progresses, any of a number of signs and symptoms typically manifest. Things to watch for in your assistance dog include:
- Unwillingness or inability to perform tasks
- Avoiding physical activity
- Becoming less attentive or more withdrawn
- Coughing for more than three days
- Shortness of breath, labored breathing, or rapid breathing
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Distended abdomen (potbelly appearance)
- Swelling in the limbs
- Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
- Collapsing or fainting
These symptoms may point to heart disease, or they may be warning signs of something else serious that’s going on with your assistance dog. If you observe any of these symptoms, see your vet right away.
Diagnosing Heart Disease in Dogs
Only your veterinarian can diagnose your assistance dog. Be prepared to tell your vet about any possible symptoms you’ve seen and concerns you have. The more detailed you can be about what you’ve noticed, when it started, whether it’s gotten worse and how quickly, and so on, the better.
Diagnosis begins with a physical examination, including listening for heart murmurs or an irregular heartbeat and looking for edema and other potential symptoms. If there’s cause for concern, other tests like X-rays, cardiac ultrasounds, or ECGs will be performed.
Treating Heart Disease in Dogs
There’s no cure for heart disease, but it can be managed to mitigate symptoms and slow the disease’s progression. Your veterinarian will prescribe one or more medications to relieve symptoms and boost your assistance dog’s cardiovascular function. Drug classes commonly used include diuretics, ACE inhibitors, vasodilators, and positive inotropes.
A low-salt diet is also an essential part of managing the disease, as is restriction on physical activity and exercise to limit stress on the heart.