Congestive heart failure develops when the heart is unable pump blood well enough to meet the needs of the body and fluid begins to leak out of the circulatory system. Fluid can collect in the chest, abdomen, or within tissues (e.g., underneath the skin), which further compromises the body’s ability to function normally.
What Causes Congestive Heart Failure?
Congestive heart failure (CHF) can develop in pets as a result of many different types of heart disease:
- conditions that disrupt the functioning of valves within the heart, especially in older, small breed dogs
- diseases affecting the heart muscle (i.e., cardiomyopathies)
- abnormal heart rhythms (i.e., arrhythmias)
- cardiac birth defects
- accumulation of fluid or air between the heart and the sac that surrounds it
- heartworm disease
Some causes of congestive heart failure are congenital (i.e., present at birth) and others are acquired (i.e., not present at birth but developed at a later date).
The Symptoms of Congestive Heart Failure
Pets with CHF typically cough and breathe rapidly, shallowly, or with extra effort. They may also be weak and unable to exercise normally, lose weight, be unable to sleep soundly, faint, develop blue-tinged mucous membranes, have diarrhea, and develop a distended abdomen.
While performing a physical exam on a pet with congestive heart failure, a veterinarian can sometimes hear abnormal sounds in the lungs related to fluid build-up or palpate a fluid wave in the abdomen. He or she may also hear a heart murmur or arrhythmia or appreciate changes in the quality of a pet’s pulses. A chest x-ray, cardiac ultrasound, blood testing for cardiac markers, electrocardiogram, heartworm test, blood pressure monitoring, and other diagnostic tests may be necessary to differentiate CHF from other diseases that can cause similar symptoms and to determine its origin.
Veterinary and Home Care
The best course of treatment for CHF depends on its underlying cause and how severe a pet’s symptoms are. In some cases, hospitalization for oxygen therapy and other procedures is necessary to stabilize a patient’s condition before home treatment can begin. Medications that are commonly used in the treatment of congestive heart failure include:
- Diuretics for dogs or cats (e.g., furosemide or spironolactone)
- Angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors like enalapril
- Vetmedin (pimobendan)
- Nitroglycerine for emergencies
Nutritional supplements and prescription diets can also play a role in the long term treatment of CHF.
If congestive heart failure has developed as a result of another condition that can be directly addressed (e.g., surgery to repair a birth defect), it is possible for a pet to be cured of its CHF. More commonly, however, pets with CHF require therapy for the rest of their lives. Due to the progressive nature of the disease, euthanasia often becomes the most humane option once treatment can no longer maintain an individual’s quality of life.
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