“What can I do to make my dog more comfortable until she passes? She has heart failure.”
I came across this question on a dog forum recently and thought it was a good time to talk about CHF in dogs in a bit more depth.
While the words “heart failure” are terrifying and imply that CHF is a death sentence, you might be surprised to find out that it’s not. At least, not always.
CHF in dogs is far more common than people think. While dogs don’t see the same percentage of CHF as people, CHF (Congestive Heart Failure) is an ailment that is more common in elderly dogs than most people realize.
Just like humans, dogs with CHF have certain things that need to be done for them to keep them healthy.
So let’s talk about CHF in dogs, and how we can keep our dogs feeling their best.
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What is Congestive Heart Failure in Dogs?
When you hear the words “heart failure,” what do you think of?
Many people assume that it means the heart is done, kaput, going out of business. It makes sense, right? When you have engine failure in your car, it means your beloved automobile is headed for the vehicle graveyard.
Heart failure is a little different, though. Put simply, it means that the heart is failing to do its job (pumping blood) at full capacity. Just like people, dogs can live with CHF as long as they get the right treatment at the right time.
We’ll get into that a bit more, but first, let’s look at some of the causes of heart failure in dogs.
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Causes of CHF in Dogs
There are several causes of congestive heart failure in dogs. These causes are actually the same as the ones that cause the disease in humans.
- Congenital (Dog is born with heart problems)
- Old Age
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Symptoms of CHF in Dogs
There are several key symptoms of congestive heart failure in dogs that make it easy for owners to tell that something is brewing. As with most illnesses in dogs, owner won’t notice a problem until more than one symptom presents itself, so if you see any of these symptoms or a combination of them, get your dog to the vet as soon as you can.
- Excessive coughing, especially during or after exercise of a few hours before bedtime
- Difficulty breathing or exercising
- Becoming easily tired
- Pacing and/or difficulty relaxing before bedtime
- Swollen belly due to abdominal fluid
- Bluish or grayish tongue and gums from poor blood oxygenation
- Unexplained weight loss
If your dog shows any of these symptoms, it’s imperative that you take your dog to the vet immediately. While there your vet will run a barrage of tests checking for any and all possibilities as to why your dog is experiencing those symptoms.
How is CHF in Dogs Diagnosed?
Your vet will run a few different tests to determine if your dog’s heart is failing. These include:
- Listening to the heart: the first, and simplest, step is listening to your dog’s heart through a stethoscope. The sounds made by your dog’s heart and lungs can give the vet a lot of clues about what’s going on in his ticker.
- Chest x-rays help the vet determine the size and shape of your dog’s heart, as well as whether there is any fluid around it.
- Lab tests, like blood and urine tests, determine if your dog is suffering from any other illnesses, as well as check on his kidney function (which is often impaired with CHF)
- An ECG to measure the electrical activity of your dog’s heart, as well as a more accurate picture of the rhythm.
- An ultrasound may be used to get more exact measurements of each heart chamber.
While your vet may not need to run every single one of these tests, if he does order more testing, it’s for a good reason. The more accurate the diagnosis, the better chance he has of prescribing the right treatment.
If it’s determined that your dog is suffering from congestive heart failure, there are steps you can take to ensure that he feels his best for as long as possible.
Treating CHF in Dogs
Congestive heart failure is a term used to describe the gradual deterioration of the heart. There are a variety of care options available for dogs suffering with CHF, and many are used in combination to help treat the different aspects of CHF in dogs.
Depending on which symptoms your dog is experiencing, our vet may recommend:
- Medication to correct irregular heartbeat
- Medication to slow fluid build-up in the lungs and body
- Surgery (if the CHF is caused by a physical defect)
- A low-salt diet to decrease fluid build-up
- Limited activity to reduce heart strain
- Strict food intake scheduled to decrease excess body weight
Prognosis of CHF in Dogs
The prognosis of CHF in dogs is actually quite good. While congestive heart failure is a scary sounding diagnosis, like most things, it’s controllable with proper diet and medications. Most dogs with CHF live full lives, living to their average life expectancy.
So in most cases, all an owner has to do if their dog is diagnosed with CHF is to simply follow their vets instructions. If they do that, their dog will most likely live a comfortable, happy life.