Early detection of heart disease can be pivotal in any pet’s long-term prognosis, and the initial detection often occurs at home when the family members recognize the common clinical signs. The cardiovascular system is complex with many organs and biochemical processes that work together in a perfect balance in healthy animals. When this system is compromised, pets begin to show gradual or obvious changes. The following are some signs that can suggest your pet is experiencing cardiovascular compromise.
Respiratory Distress: One of the most sensitive signs is an increase in the respiration rate while sleeping. Normally the respiration rate should be less than 32 breaths per minute (i.e., about a breath every two seconds). This can be observed by counting how many rises or falls of the chest occur over one minute. If this rate is increased or is accompanied by an abdominal effort, cardiac compromise may be indicated. If this rate is consistently elevated, then your pet should have a cardiopulmonary evaluation as soon as possible.
Cough: A more obvious sign of heart disease is a recent and persistent cough, often most pronounced in the morning, evening, and when rising from a reclined position. Early detection of heart disease in cats can be even more difficult to identify, for typically they do not cough with cardiac disease but will display an increased breathing effort. Cats also exhibit an open-mouth breathing pattern, which is accompanied by an increase in respiratory rate and effort.
Exercise Intolerance: Another detectable symptom is a decline in activity, reluctance to exercise, or a general weakness, referred to as exercise intolerance. Dogs or cats may become tired after short bouts of exercise far sooner than what they could previously tolerate, breathing heavier for a longer duration afterward. At times, their gums may change color to a purplish or pale hue.
Collapse/Syncope: Your pet may experience collapsing or fainting episodes if severe cardiac disease is present. This may result either from irregularities with your pet’s heart electrical activity called arrhythmias or severe decline in heart function. This serious sign should be promptly evaluated by a vet. Cats can experience collapsing episodes with paralysis of either front or hind limbs and vocalization. This is a severe medical emergency, and veterinary care should be sought out immediately.
Changes in Behavior: A general restlessness may occur, especially at night, appearing as if they are having a difficult time finding a comfortable place to lie down. Withdrawn or hiding behavior is more often seen in cats with heart disease. The appearance of a generalized depression has also been described.
Weight Fluctuations: Weight loss is strongly linked to longstanding heart disease, but your pet may experience what appears to be weight gain, as well. This would appear as a bloated or distended abdomen due to inappropriate fluid retention.
Dr. T.J. Morrison is a cardiologist at Advanced Veterinary Specialists ( 729-4460; avs4pets.com) and owner of Coast to Coast Cardiology