Pets can suffer from a variety of heart conditions. Some types of heart disease may lead to congestive heart failure in dogs. CHF in dogs is a common condition for senior canines. It affects almost 25 percent of dogs between the ages of 10 and 12. While this can be devastating for many pet owners, pups don’t usually die from heart attacks like humans do. If congestive heart failure is caught early enough, the prognosis won’t be as detrimental. Learn more about congestive heart failure in dogs here so you can provide your pet with the best opportunity for treatment.
What is Congestive Heart Failure in Dogs?
What exactly is congestive heart failure in dogs? When a dog’s heart fails to pump enough blood, the body is usually able to compensate and ensure tissues and organs receive the blood and oxygen they need. However, as the condition progresses, a canine’s body will be less able to compensate for the lack of blood flow. As a result, the heart will not be able to pump enough blood which causes fluid to build up in the lungs and other areas. This causes congestion and will eventually lead to heart failure.
Certain types of canine heart disease can make it difficult for your dog’s heart to effectively pump blood to the rest of his or her body. Heart disease can progress slowly and impact the left, right, or both sides of a dog’s heart.
A canine’s heart consists of a four-chambered pump made of muscle. The heart muscle of a dog is made up of the same four chambers that humans have: the left ventricle, right ventricle, left atrium and right atrium. Each chamber is separated by heart valves that make it so blood can only flow in one direction. When the heart contracts, the pump will distribute blood throughout your dog’s body supplying each organ with oxygen and disposing of waste. Congestive heart failure occurs in dogs when the heart is unable to perform these functions and can be caused by several different factors. Simply put, it means your pet’s heart can’t deliver enough blood throughout his or her body.
What Causes Congestive Heart Failure in Dogs?
Some dogs are born with heart defects which puts them at a higher risk for congestive heart failure later in life. Infection, injury, and old age can make a heart defect worse for some pups. Nutrition and exercise play a role in causing congestive heart failure as well.
Around 10 percent of canines have some form of heart disease, but some may have a higher risk than others. Dog breeds predisposed to heart disease include Chihuahuas, Pomeranians, Boston Terriers, Miniature Pinschers, Pekingeses, Miniature Poodles, Toy Poodles, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Fox Terriers, and Miniature Schnauzers.
While many health conditions can lead to congestive heart failure in dogs, chronic valve disease is one of the most common causes. When heart valves degenerate, they can fail to function properly. This creates an increased workload for the heart and eventually leads to congestive heart failure. The disease can also be caused by heart murmurs. Heart murmurs in dogs are extra heart vibrations caused by a disruption in blood flow. This heart condition can lead to quickening of a dog’s heart rate and eventually cause CHF in dogs.
Other types of heart disease and heart defects that can lead to congestive heart failure in dogs include:
- Congenital heart disease
- Heartworm Disease
- Acquired heart disease
- Dilated cardiomyopathy
- Degenerative mitral valve disease
- Pulmonic stenosis
- Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy
- High blood pressure
What Are the Symptoms of Congestive Heart Failure in Dogs?
Knowing the symptoms of congestive heart failure in dogs will allow you to provide your pooch with timely treatment. The most common signs of canine congestive heart failure include difficulty breathing accompanied by coughing. However, your dog will show different symptoms during the early and later stages of the condition.
In addition to coughing and labored breathing, early symptoms for dogs with CHF may include:
- Lethargy and increased sleep
- Difficulty exercising
- Weight loss
- Diarrhea or vomiting
- Distended abdomen
Most dogs will show one or two early symptoms with others appearing as the condition progresses. However, some canines will exhibit several signs during the early stages of congestive heart failure. If your dog is predisposed to heart disease or was born with a heart defect, keep an eye out for the early symptoms of congestive heart failure in dogs. If your pet is experiencing any of these symptoms, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian.
During the late stages of congestive heart failure, your dog may exhibit symptoms including:
- Severe weight loss
- Chronic diarrhea or vomiting
- Swelling of the legs
- Bluish or gray-colored gums or tongue
- Difficulty breathing and ongoing coughing
- Fluid buildup (ascites) leading to a swollen abdomen
- Frequent fainting or sudden collapse
- Frequent whimpering or crying from pain
- Profuse bleeding
Unfortunately, some instances of congestive heart failure in dogs will not be caught early-on. If you notice any of the symptoms of the later stages, it’s important to take your pup to a vet clinic or pet hospital immediately.
Diagnosing Congestive Heart Failure in Dogs
To diagnose canine congestive heart failure, a full physical examination will be performed by your vet. This will indicate whether your dog has an abnormal heart size, pleural effusion, pericardial effusion (abnormal fluid accumulation in the pericardial sac of the heart), or a heart defect. An enlarged heart is common for senior dogs and can be detected with a heart ultrasound which will also determine the shape and movement of the heart. During the examination, your vet will conduct a complete blood profile which will include a blood count and urinalysis.
When you take your dog to see the vet, be sure to tell them about each and every symptom you’ve noticed and how long it’s been going on. A veterinarian will want to know what your pet has been eating, which medications or supplements they’re taking, and if your pup is currently on a heartworm disease preventative. Most vet clinics will request your dog’s complete health history as well as information about any incidents that may have contributed to the condition. Your pet’s health history can give the veterinarian staff clues as to which organs are being affected by the heart condition.
Other tests for diagnosing congestive heart failure in dogs will likely include:
- Heartworm antigen testing through blood work
- Listening to the heart through a stethoscope
- Fluid analysis
- Chest X-rays
- Electrocardiogram (ECG) to measure electrical signals from the heart
- Holter monitoring to capture heart rate and rhythms
Upon diagnosis of congestive heart failure, it’s essential that you start treatment as soon as possible.
Treatment for Congestive Heart Failure in Dogs
Most pets will be treated through outpatient care unless the condition is severe. Treatment recommendations may include limited physical activity, weight management, and a modified diet with reduced sodium to decrease the buildup of fluid in your pet’s body.
When congestive heart failure is caught during the early stages, your pet will have a good chance of slowing the progression of the condition. After getting a diagnosis, the first step in treating congestive heart failure in dogs is selecting a veterinary cardiologist. Your vet clinic will be able to give you a referral.
Unfortunately, congestive heart failure cannot be completely reversed, but some treatments may slow the progression of the condition and extend your dog’s life. Depending on the stage of the disease and the age of your pet, your vet may only recommend treatment to alleviate some of the painful and uncomfortable symptoms associated with congestive heart failure. A specific treatment plan for your pup will be determined by which heart problem he or she has and what was causing the problem.
Medications may be prescribed to treat congestive heart failure in dogs including:
- Inodilators to strengthen the heart muscles
- Beta-blockers to slow heart rate and reduce the demand for oxygen
- ACE inhibitors to open up constricted blood vessels
- Digoxin to help the heart contract
- Calcium channel blockers to relax heart muscles and maintain a steady rhythm
- Diuretics to reduce the amount of fluid in the body.
Your veterinarian might provide your dog with a combination of prescriptions to alleviate symptoms and slow the disease.
Some vets may recommend supplements for canines with congestive heart failure. Dogs suffering from the condition might benefit from Vitamin B, taurine (an amino acid for brain development), carnitine (an amino acid that converts fat into energy), coenzyme Q10, and Vitamin E.
In rare cases, surgery may be necessary for dogs with congestive heart failure to remove excess fluid in the chest or abdomen, repair a torn heart valve, or insert a pacemaker to regulate the heartbeat.
The primary goal of treatment for congestive heart failure in dogs is to reduce the amount of fluid surrounding the heart. This will allow it to function properly and pump blood to the lungs and other vital organs. When fluid reduction cannot be achieved, treatment will include methods to reduce the symptoms associated with the condition so that your dog is as comfortable as possible. With treatment, nutrition, and rest, many dogs with congestive heart failure can live for years after receiving an initial diagnosis.
Monitoring a Dog with Congestive Heart Failure
Congestive heart failure is not curable, so ongoing management will be required. Following diagnosis, it’s vital that you administer a full course of the prescribed medication to your dog and take note of any abnormalities in their behavior. It will also be necessary to monitor your dog’s kidney health. Canines diagnosed with congestive heart failure are usually monitored for increased respiratory rate, difficulty breathing, weakness, lethargy, fainting, and abdominal distension.
An increased respiratory rate is typically one of the first signs of fluid buildup in the lungs. When your dog is sleeping or resting, count the number of breaths he or she takes in one minute. A respiratory rate app can also be used to monitor your pet’s breathing. If you count more than 40 breaths per minute, contact your vet right away.
Preventing Congestive Heart Failure in Dogs
Because congestive heart failure in dogs can be caused by a variety of factors, prevention may be difficult to pinpoint. Heartworm can cause canine heart disease, so giving your dog heartworm medication on a regular basis will help to prevent the condition. Prevention of congestive heart failure in dogs will depend on the underlying cause of the condition. Staying aware of the most common symptoms of congestive heart failure will allow you to catch the condition before it gets worse. Additionally, taking your pet in for routine wellness checkups will also help to prevent heart failure. Unchecked heart problems can make things harder on a dog and even shorten their lifespan.
Caring for a Dog with Congestive Heart Failure
Providing your dog with proper rest, adequate care, frequent monitoring, and a positive attitude is the best way to care for a pet with congestive heart failure. Canine heart disease and heart failure are difficult for both dogs and owners to experience. As congestive heart failure can’t be completely stopped or reversed, the best way to care for a dog with congestive heart failure is to help your fur baby live a comfortable, happy life.
Congestive heart failure is a progressive disease, so new symptoms and problems can continue to arise after getting a diagnosis. It’s not uncommon for fluid to return to the heart and lungs after treatment which may lead to increased lethargy and fainting. Take your dog in for all their scheduled checkups and provide your vet with as much detailed information as possible about his or her ongoing condition.
Pet owners should expect their dogs to move at a slower pace or experience an upset stomach with congestive heart failure, so it’s important to be gentle and patient with your pooch. The good news is that with timely treatment and therapy, most dogs with congestive heart failure can still have a good quality of life. Stick with your treatment plan and always contact your vet if you have any questions or concerns about looking after a dog with congestive heart failure.
- “Congestive Heart Failure in Dogs.” Veterinary Centers of America, Accessed 5 Sept. 2019. https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/congestive-heart-failure-in-dogs
- “Congestive Heart Failure (CHF) in Dogs.” Vetstreet, 21 Feb. 2014, Accessed 5 Sept. 2019 http://www.vetstreet.com/care/congestive-heart-failure-chf-in-dogs
- “Congestive Heart Failure in Dogs.” https://pets.webmd.com/dogs/congestive-heart-failure-dogs#1, 13 Sept. 2018, Accessed 5 Sept. 2019