Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

It’s fitting to focus on the heart with this column, since February is American Heart Month and also known worldwide as the month of love. Cats and dogs certainly hold a special place in our hearts. 

Owners are, of course, usually the first to detect a potential medical issue with their pets. But sometimes heart disease symptoms, depending on the severity of the disease, can go unnoticed, especially in the early stages when your pet may be asymptomatic and show no visible signs of being unwell. Some symptoms may also be mistaken for changes associated with aging, and you may not know there could be a contingent underlining problem.  

Varying symptoms

Symptoms may be subtle enough that your dog or cat is able to live with their symptoms without alerting you that something is wrong, or their symptoms may be severe and potentially fatal. 

Signs of heart disease in dogs and cats include:

•Respiratory changes (difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, labored breathing, rapid breathing rate);

•Lethargy or weakness;


•Poor appetite;

•Weight loss or weight gain;


•Restlessness, most often at night  — This can be more difficult to recognize in cats since many healthy cats are typically active at night;

•Edema (swelling of abdomen and extremities);

•Coughing (more often a symptom seen in dogs);

•Thromboembolisms (blood clots, often a result of heart disease in cats) — These clots cut off blood supply to the hind legs. You may notice your cat’s inability to walk normally; and

•Heart murmur — Be advised that not all murmurs can be easily heard.

While the above signs are usually indicative that heart disease could be present, note that these signs could also be caused by other illnesses whose symptoms are similar. While accurate diagnosing of any disease or condition begins with a thorough physical exam, your veterinarian may recommend additional tests to be performed such as:

•Blood work, such as CBC (complete blood count) or chemistry analysis to evaluate different elements of the blood;

•Radiography (X-ray), to view your pet’s heart and internal organs to help identify abnormalities or show evidence of fluid accumulation;

•Blood-pressure test, to find out if the blood is flowing properly or if there is resistance or hypertension (high blood pressure);

•Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG), to evaluate the electrical activity of the heart to measure and diagnose heart arrhythmias (abnormal heart beats or rhythms); and

•Echocardiogram (ultrasound examination of the heart), to assess function, identify leaking valves and measure cardiac output — It also can show disturbances in the flow of blood through the heart and aid in determining whether the muscle of the heart is contracting effectively.

Keeping healthy

Don’t lose hope in the event your pet is diagnosed with heart disease. Early diagnosis and treatment can significantly prolong and improve your pet’s life. 

Some key ways to help keep your pet healthy is to provide a diet that is well-balanced and made with high-quality ingredients. You should also ensure that your pet receives adequate exercise as obesity forces the heart to work harder. 

Routine checkups are equally important, as your veterinarian may discover an issue that you had not known was present. While you are there, you may also take the opportunity to ask plenty of questions and get advice on how to keep your woof and meow’s hearts healthy. 

MEGAN L. FOUCH is the office manager at the Madison Park Veterinary Hospital ( To comment on this column, write to