February is widely recognized as the month to focus on the heart in humans — whether this is for Valentine’s Day, or from a heart health point of view.
Now, we can’t possibly comment on the romantic inclinations of our patients, but we can certainly say that, just like humans, our patients can suffer from diseases of the heart. Greater awareness of heart disease and the increase in the average age of our patients means that we are diagnosing and treating more heart disease than in the past.
Many people are all too familiar with heart disease, but here is a little recap. Hearts are muscles containing four chambers that pump the blood around to provide oxygen and nutrients to the rest of the body. The chambers are separated by valves, like little gates that open and close to control the movement of the blood in the heart. When heart disease happens in animals, it is because the muscles are not pumping the blood properly or because the valves are not opening and closing properly.
Unlike humans, animals do not suffer from clogged arteries in the heart because of their slightly different anatomy. Heart problems in animals occur for two main reasons. One is that the heart formed incorrectly to begin with and these patients can suffer right from birth or early in their lives. Often murmurs or abnormal heart sounds will be heard by the veterinarian at a puppy or kitten’s first wellness exam. The other, more common, presentation we see is when damage occurs to the heart over time, causing it to not function properly. These animals present at an older age with signs coming on so slowly that it can be easy chalk them up to ‘old age’ unless they are examined by a veterinarian. It is often a change in the heart sound heard through the veterinarian’s stethoscope at a regular wellness exam that raises the warning that the heart should be further investigated.
Veterinarians listen for murmurs, which happen when the valves aren’t closing properly, or irregular patterns in the heart beats to help them decide if a heart is healthy or not. Early signs of heart disease that an owner might see in their pet at home can be very subtle, and include changes in the amounts of eating and drinking, decreased exercise tolerance, more sleeping than usual, a cough (especially when lying down), or increased breathing rate and weight fluctuations. Later on in the disease, animals can show a significant difficulty with breathing, have big bellies that don’t match their bony backs, and quite often a distressed look with an inability to rest comfortably.
The good news is that through regular screening at wellness exams, veterinarians can pick up possible heart disease and perform screening tests. In fact, wellness exams for senior pets are scheduled more frequently than regular wellness exams — in part because of the increasing risk of heart disease in this age group. Bloodwork, chest X-rays and ultrasounds of the heart are commonly used tests that diagnose heart disease and help veterinarians judge how advanced it is. Early diagnosis of many types of heart disease can result in a longer, happier life through the use of the right medications and minor lifestyle changes – such as diet and exercise. Appropriate early use of heart drugs can extend life for several years. Cutting-edge research and surgeries in veterinary cardiology are also more accessible than ever and are improving the lives of many animals. Now that’s something we can all ‘heart’!
Dr. Katharine North has been a resident and active participant in the Fort St. John community since her family immigrated to Canada from the United Kingdom as a child. Dr. North spent many hours at the North Peace Veterinary Clinic as a student and joined the practice as a veterinary associate upon graduation.