Heart disease in cats can be an elusive topic. Our feline friends are more secretive in nature when compared to our canine counterparts. The clinical signs they display can often go unnoticed and sometimes can be vague.
Vomiting or increased hiding behavior often are some of the first signs seen at home. These signs do not point to heart disease specifically, but rather that something is amiss. Frequent coughing, a behavior often associated with cardiac disease in dogs, rarely points to heart disease in cats. Usually, coughing in cats suggests a primary lung ailment rather than heart but there can be exceptions. More serious signs of heart disease in cats can include difficulty breathing, collapsing episodes or fainting spells, or suddenly not being able to use their back legs and vocalizing in pain. If you see these signs, this is a medical emergency and immediate attention is required for your cat.
What Forms Does Heart Disease Take in Cats?
Congenital defects (defects that younger cats are born with) occur in about 0.14% of the population. One of the most common defects is a ventricular septal defect. This is a hole present in the portion of the heart that separates the two lower chambers (left and right ventricle).
Most commonly, acquired heart disease occurs. This is heart disease that develops as patients age. The most common acquired heart disease in cats is hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) and affects roughly 15% of the feline population. This disease has a long pre-clinical phase and sometimes patients never develop clinical signs or complications. Depending on the severity of the condition, other patients require lifelong monitoring and possible medications.
How Cardiomyopathy Affects a Cat
HCM thickens the walls of the heart and decreases its efficacy. The heart cannot relax normally and overtime causes heart enlargement and/or arrhythmias (abnormal heart beats). Some breeds like Main Coones, Sphynx and Ragdolls are genetically predisposed to this disease. There are some blood tests to determine if these cat breeds are carriers for HCM. However, a positive test does not mean your cat will develop heart disease in its lifetime. While genetics play a role, any cat is capable of developing this disease with age.
There are some diseases that can make the heart work harder and create changes similar to HCM; systemic hypertension (high blood pressure) and hyperthyroidism (elevated thyroid hormone). Prior to diagnosing HCM, it’s important to rule out these other diseases and therapy and treatment options differ.
How Do Vets Assess and Treat Heart Disease in Cats?
If your cat has an abnormal heart sound (heart murmur or arrhythmia), your vet may recommend further evaluation with an echocardiogram (ultrasound of the heart) by a veterinary cardiologist. Cats can also have innocent or benign heart murmurs. The only way to tell if your cat has a heart murmur from disease or an innocent heart murmur is with an echocardiogram. Some additional tests that may be indicated include chest radiographs (x-rays), blood work, blood pressure and an electrocardiogram (ECG).
Unfortunately, primary heart disease in cats does not have a cure. Consequently, therapies focus on controlling clinical signs. Some therapies help the heart pump more effectively while others are preventative for some complications.
You could think of CARE as an animal version of a medical center for humans, providing all forms of treatment for pets. Patients receive emergency care 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and can get board-certified specialty care after a referral from their primary veterinarian. You can take a visual tour of the practice at carecharlotte.com/tour.