February is Heart Disease Awareness Month for humans, so it seems fitting to talk about heart disease in dogs and cats too! There is enough information on heart disease to fill up many books, so today I’m going to focus strictly on recognizing the early signs of heart disease in your own pets. Recognizing early warning signs is the most important aspect of treatment. Starting treatment early can be lifesaving!
First of all, let me tell you about the best home monitoring tool we have available for BOTH dogs and cats! This is the resting (or sleeping) respiratory rate. Resting Respiratory Rate is the number of breaths that are taken in 1 minute while sleeping or resting comfortably. A normal pet takes fewer than 30 breaths in 1 minute. If your pet is taking more than 30 breaths in 1 minute, it’s probably time for medical attention.
Let’s start with cats, because cats are a lot more challenging. A cat’s main goal in life is to never let on that they have a problem (excluding telling you about an empty food bowl of course!). For this reason, spotting warning signs of heart disease can be tricky! I’m going to talk about a few warning signs, but take note! These can also be signs of other disease processes.
- Open Mouth Breathing: One of the first signs, most pet lovers notice, is open mouth breathing. Cats are termed “obligate nasal breathers” meaning they breathe exclusively through the nose. Breathing with the mouth open or panting should be considered warning signs.
- Abdominal effort: excessive motion of the abdomen while breathing, or sitting with the elbows out and head down and out while breathing are signs of shortness of breath.
- Cough: believe it or not, cats with heart disease rarely cough. Even with lungs full of fluid, cats generally don’t cough the way that dogs do! That being said, if you think your cat is coughing, it’s important to consider this a warning sign as well!
- Hiding, reclusiveness, changes in behavior, changes in appetite, and weight loss: this is why cats are tricky. Sometimes the only signs of heart disease that they show us are signs of general sickness.
- Weight Loss with a good appetite: technically, this is most commonly a sign of hyperthyroidism, a disease common in senior cats. However, one of the greatest concerns associated with hyperthyroidism is heart disease. If you are noticing weight loss in your cat, it’s time for a physical exam and bloodwork.
- No sign or advanced warning at all: unfortunately there are some cats who give absolutely no sign of disease or discomfort until their body is unable to compensate. At this point in time they start showing signs of respiratory distress and require immediate attention.
While we are talking about respiratory patterns in cats, let’s talk about other reasons cats are short of breath or struggle to breathe! One of the more common is feline asthma. This usually results in a “wheeze” or respiratory pattern described as a cough. Generally the head and neck are extended, and they sound like they are “trying to vomit” or “trying to cough up a hairball”. This condition also requires treatment, so if you are in doubt, it’s time to call the vet!
Dogs are similar, but with a few differences. In general dogs are a little easier to recognize the signs. The average dog isn’t quite as stoic as the average cat!
- Cough: unlike cats, the first sign of heart disease that most owners notice is coughing. The cough is non-productive, throaty, and persistent.
- Shortness of breath and exercise intolerance: this is easier to notice in younger dogs. Young dogs who just can’t play like normal young dogs may have an underlying heart condition.
- Fainting or collapse episodes: These are called syncopal episodes, and it usually looks like the dog has fainted.
- Abdominal effort, increased respiratory effort: If the abdomen is moving as much as the chest while the dog tries to catch his breath, or if the pet is standing with elbows out and neck extended, it’s time to seek medical attention.
- Weight Loss, appetite loss, general lethargy: Sometimes pets with heart disease will either have a hard enough time breathing that they don’t want to spend energy eating, or will have behavior changes that result from their discomfort breathing.
- Positive heartworm test: heartworm disease can cause heart failure, so it’s important to keep up with those yearly heartworm tests and routine heartworm prevention. Catching heartworm disease before clinical symptoms are present makes treatment much easier and safer and the risk of long term complications and heart failure are less.
Now let’s talk about common respiratory difficulties in dogs OTHER than heart disease. One of the more common ones that we see is called “reverse sneezing”. This is a relatively normal thing that some dogs will do on occasion. It sounds like “choking” or “coughing”, but is really just an irritation of the nasopharynx. Coughing can or shortness of breath can also be signs of upper respiratory infection or pneumonia. However, if your dog is doing any kind of coughing or shortness of breath, it’s best to have them evaluated by a veterinarian.
Is my expectation that you sit around counting your pet’s respiratory rate and stressing about early warning signs of heart disease? Absolutely not! Is it my hope that you will notice a subtle change in your dog or cat, and the result will be a quicker start to diagnosis and treatment? Absolutely!