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Congestive Heart Failure in Dogs: Prognosis & Treatment

In some dogs, heart disease can lead to a condition called congestive heart failure. Our Long Island veterinarians explain the prognosis for this serious condition and how to treat and manage congestive heart failure in dogs. 

Heart Disease & Heart Failure in Dogs

Just like us, our beloved four-legged friends can have heart problems. Sadly, these may be present from birth and can take years to spot, as symptoms such as persistent cough or weakness may not be apparent at first.

Conditions such as heart disease, which can affect one or both sides of the heart, can develop due to or be exacerbated by infection, injury, and old age. Your dog's breed, diet, and the quality and amount of exercise they get also factor into your pooch's heart health.  

Severe heart problems and complications of heart disease can lead to congestive heart failure, which occurs when the valves that regulate blood flow to and from the heart stop working properly. This means the heart will be unable to pump an adequate amount of blood throughout the body, which can affect your dog's daily functioning and life expectancy. 

Though congestive heart failure tends to happen more often in middle-aged and older dogs, it can affect dogs of any age, breed, or sex. In this post, we'll discuss symptoms of heart problems, the prognosis for congestive heart failure, and treatment and management options for this condition in dogs.

What are symptoms of heart problems in dogs?

If your dog has a heart murmur, your veterinarian or veterinary cardiologist will be able to detect it with a stethoscope. While clinical signs of heart failure may not be present in its early stages, we will be able to identify any structural changes in your dog's heart with diagnostic tests. As heart problems progress, your dog's breathing, circulation, appetite and other indicators of health will be severely impacted.

Here is a list of symptoms from early to late-stage heart problems and congestive heart failure. If your dog has a heart murmur and develops any of these, ask your vet for a referral to our veterinary cardiologist as soon as possible:

Early Symptoms

  • Increased respiratory rate
  • Tiring easily
  • Difficulty breathing and exercising
  • Pacing before bedtime and having difficulty settling down

Worsening Symptoms

  • Your dog losing weight and muscle as their ability to store fat diminishes
  • Change in gum or tongue color to bluish-gray due to poor oxygen flow
  • A swollen belly as a result of fluid building up (ascites)
  • Fainting due to blocked blood flow to the brain

Symptoms of Heart Failure 

  • Coughing coupled with difficulty breathing, even when resting
  • Reduced stamina 
  • Increased resting respiratory rate 
  • Excessive panting 
  • Persistent loss of appetite 

The most common clinical sign of congestive heart failure in dogs is persistent coughing coupled with difficulty breathing. This is primarily due to the accumulation of fluid in the lungs (pulmonary edema). 

During the last stages of heart failure, a dog will show clinical signs of heart disease and be responsive to cardiac medications. End-stage heart failure will trigger severe symptoms that no longer respond to cardiac medications or treatments. 

How is congestive heart failure diagnosed?

The veterinary cardiologist will ask which symptoms you've noticed. They'll also inquire about your dog's diet, which medications and supplements they may be taking, and if they are currently on heartworm protection. 

The vet will listen to your dog's chest and may recommend diagnostic tests, including:

  • Chest X-rays - To examine your dog's internal organs and detect structural changes to the heart.
  • Ultrasound - To examine the heart's size, shape, and movement. 
  • Holter Monitor - Taped to your dog's chest and worn for 24-48 hours to capture heart rhythms and rate. 
  • EKG - To measure electrical signals from your dog's heart, and to reveal how fast it's beating. This test will also reveal if the heart's rhythm is healthy. 
  • Blood & Urine Tests - To look for any other problems that may be impacting your dog's heart. 
  • Heartworm Antigen Test - Your vet will take a sample of your dog's blood to test for heartworms. 

Is there a way to detect congestive heart failure early?

Though congestive heart failure can sometimes appear acutely, there may be subtle changes in your dog's health and physical appearance before more severe symptoms set in.

Congestive heart failure may be mistaken for other illnesses that accompany the aging process. Your primary vet plays an integral role in early detection of heart problems and other health conditions, so it's important to bring your dog in for regular checkups in their senior years. 

If your dog shows signs of heart disease or congestive heart failure, your vet can refer you to our board-certified veterinary cardiologist at Atlantic Coast New York Veterinary Specialists, who specializes in treating patients with cardiovascular (heart) and vascular disease in cats and dogs. We use state-of-the-art diagnostic procedures to evaluate heart diseases and conditions. 

The veterinary cardiologist may recommend monitoring your dog's resting respiratory rate (RRR). This measures the number of breaths they take when they are quietly resting or sleeping. 

After about a week of monitoring, you'll learn your dog's average RRR. By continuing to check it as often as the veterinary cardiologist recommends, you'll be able to identify changes in your pooch's oxygen requirements. 

Report any significant increase to your veterinary cardiologist, even if it's within the normal range for an average dog. Your vet may recommend additional testing to detect early congestive heart failure. 

Can dogs survive congestive heart failure?

We sometimes hear of a person having heart attack. This acute condition usually refers to myocardial infarction (MI), or the death of cells in an area of the heart muscle or myocardium. Cell death usually happens due to oxygen deprivation caused by the blockage of coronary blood vessels that supply blood to the heart's muscles. 

While heart attacks are rare in dogs, sudden and unexpected death in dogs diagnosed with any form of heart disease or heart failure is possible. 

How long do dogs live after being diagnosed with congestive heart failure?

Generally, dogs diagnosed with congestive heart failure can live anywhere from 6 months to 1.5 or 2 years. Factors that impact how long a dog can live with this condition include:

  • The dog's age 
  • The severity of their condition 
  • Any underlying medical conditions, such as pneumonia or kidney disease
  • Any medications the dog is taking 
  • The dog's responsiveness to treatment 

What is the treatment for congestive heart failure in dogs?

Since there is no cure for this condition, treating congestive heart failure in dogs comes down to early detection and proper management, which can improve your dog's prognosis and quality of life. 

Our veterinary cardiologist at Atlantic Coast New York Veterinary Specialists can provide continued monitoring of your dog's nutrition, activity, and medication, in addition to guidance on management and prognosis. 

For example, we may recommend a diet low in sodium to reduce pressure on the heart, in addition to an appropriate amount of exercise. Medications may also be prescribed to help remove fluids and slow the progression of congestive heart failure. 

Note: The advice provided in this post is intended for informational purposes and does not constitute medical advice regarding pets. For an accurate diagnosis of your pet's condition, please make an appointment with your vet.

Do you suspect your dog may have heart problems? Ask your vet for a referral to our veterinary cardiologist in Long Island. We can perform an examination and provide a diagnosis and options to manage your pet's condition.

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