Your dog no longer takes the same delight in running, jumping for your Frisbee or gobbling dinner. Maybe that’s the slow onset of arthritis, maybe the general decline of old age. But it could also be congestive heart failure. If so, you’ll have to catch it early to give your dog as high a quality of life as possible (Cats get the disease, but much less frequently.).

What Is Congestive Heart Failure?

Hearts have four chambers, atria above and ventricles below. The right atrium receives oxygen-poor blood from the body and pumps it to the right ventricle, which sends that blood to the lungs. The left atrium gets oxygen-rich blood back from the lungs and pumps it to the left ventricle, which pushes it out to the rest of the body. As the name suggests, congestive heart failure occurs when blood cannot flow smoothly and collects where it shouldn’t.

CHF is a consequence of an underlying heart disease and not a heart disease itself.

CHF comes in two forms. In the left-sided type, pressure builds in the left half of the heart and in the pulmonary vein that brings blood from the lungs; fluid then fills up the lungs, which makes breathing difficult. In the right-sided type, the heart can’t send enough blood to the lungs; this increases pressure “upstream,” causing fluid build-up in the chest cavity and/or abdominal cavity.

What Causes CHF?

Unfortunately, you rarely forestall this condition with diet, exercise, or proper medical care. It’s usually the result of breed predisposition.

Mitral Valve Disease causes the majority of canine CHF cases. This valve allows for oxygen-rich blood from the left atrium to enter the left ventricle. When it doesn’t close properly, blood leaks backward, creating pulmonary edema. Small to medium breeds are predisposed toward this ailment: Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Chihuahuas, Dachshunds, Malteses, Bichon Frises, Miniature Schnauzers.

While MVD tends to show up in adult dogs, younger pets can get cardiomyopathy. This usually comes in dilated or hypertrophic forms, where the heart’s chambers enlarge (dilate) or the heart muscle thickens. Cardiomyopathy doesn’t always lead to congestive heart failure, though it can if untreated.

What Do You and Your Vet Watch For?

Because listlessness or loss of appetite can be signs of many conditions, the biggest tip-offs to heart problems are increased resting respiratory rate and effortful breathing. The respiratory rate when sleeping or dozing should never be more than 30 to 40 breaths per minute. (Cats tend to be on the lower end.) Other clinical signs associated with heart failure include collapsing or fainting spells, open-mouthed breathing in cats, overt persistent coughing and abdominal distension.

Your vet will look for a heart murmur or arrhythmia (uneven heartbeat), which can warrant blood tests, chest X-rays or an electrocardiogram to find underlying heart disease.

Caring For Pets, Not Curing Them

Surgeons in France and Japan have experimented with mitral valve repair in dogs, which can cure degenerative mitral valve disease (in early stages). Without surgical repair, doctors aim to prevent accumulation of fluid in the body and give pets the best quality of life. A change of diet, especially to one with low sodium and no snacks, can help. But survival time once the cardiac disease has advanced (pre-clinical) ranges from 9 to 18 months for dogs or cats.

Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, the kind where the heart muscle thickens, offers a variable survival time after experiencing CHF. This cardiac disease most commonly occurs in cats.

Dilated cardiomyopathy, the kind where the chambers of the heart expand, yields a predicted survival rate of 6 to 9 months for dogs after experiencing CHF. So, the faster you catch CHF, the more quality time you are likely to have with your pet.

CARE is the animal-oriented equivalent of a medical center for humans. It provides all forms of treatment for pets through emergency care 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It also offers board-certified specialty care, if you get a referral from your primary veterinarian. You can take a visual tour of the practice at

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