What is Congestive Heart Failure?

 In Pet Talk: In the News

red bowl with dog food in shape of heartWe all may have suffered from a broken heart at one point in our lives, but when our pet has an actual broken heart, it can lead to congestive heart failure (CHF). 

Congestive heart failure is a condition that occurs secondary to the heart not pumping properly. When the heart can’t pump efficiently, fluid accumulates in or around the lungs. The lungs can’t fill with oxygen properly, and the pet starts to breathe abnormally. There are many diseases of the heart that can occur, such as valve disease, arrhythmias, and congenital defects. However, when a pet goes into congestive heart failure, they should be evaluated by a veterinarian immediately.  

What does CHF look like?

Congestive heart failure can occur rapidly. If it does, most pets will have difficulty breathing. You may notice that they’re using more of their abdomen when breathing or their neck is stretched out (as they’re doing everything they can to get more oxygen). If CHF comes on more slowly, you may notice coughing, exercise intolerance, lethargy, decreased appetite, weakness, and/or collapse.

To monitor your pet’s normal respiratory rate, watch them breathe when they’re sleeping. The respiratory rate should stay below 40 respirations/minute, but this can vary slightly from animal to animal. To count the respiratory rate, watch the chest wall rise and fall; this is one respiration. With time, you’ll become aware of what your pet normally looks like when breathing and what abnormal breathing would look like. If you see any of the signs listed above, have your pet evaluated by a veterinarian.

How do we diagnosis CHF?

Many tests will likely need to be performed to evaluate for heart disease and CHF. Radiographs of the chest will evaluate if there is fluid in or around the lungs, as well as the heart and blood vessels size. An ultrasound of the heart (echocardiogram) can evaluate what the heart looks like structurally and how it’s pumping. An EKG will help evaluate for arrhythmias. Blood work will help evaluate for abnormalities that could be contributing to heart disease, as well as evaluate kidney function, which comes into play when we discuss treatments for CHF.

What are some possible treatments for CHF?

Treatments are supportive and aid in the ability of the heart to pump efficiently. They will not treat the underlying disease. Diuretics are used to decrease the amount of fluid the heart has to pump. Diuretics work on the kidneys, and thus, kidney function needs to be monitored closely. Vasodilators can be used to decrease the pressure the heart has to pump against. Positive inotropes make the heart contract with more force. If arrhythmias are present, than anti-arrhythmics will be prescribed.  

Prognosis for congestive heart failure truly depends on the cause. If there is an underlying structural problem, survival time may be a year; however, each pet is different. What’s most important is monitoring your pet for signs and seeking care from your veterinarian.

We, as veterinarians, know how difficult it is to have a broken heart, but we can help you and your pet through it.

– Kerri Wiedmeyer, DVM, for Fetch magazine
WVRC – ER Veterinarian

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