Everything You Need to Know About Heart Disease in Dogs & Cats

Written by: Dr. Jean Hofve, Holistic Veterinarian, DVM

What You Need to Know About Heart Disease in Dogs & Cats

Heart disease is more commonly seen in older cats and dogs, but is seen in younger animals in increasing numbers.  Heart disease can be a result of a tired, run-down immune system, genetic defect, or poor quality nutrition.  It can also be secondary to bacterial or viral infections, kidney failure and hyperthyroidism.  The increase in toxins in the environment and in foods, chemical exposure (such as cleaning and air freshening products), and over-vaccination may be contributing to the incidence of heart disease in both younger and older animals.  Lack of exercise can also contribute to heart disease as the heart muscle needs to be exercised to remain strong and healthy.  

Cardiomyopathy is the most common heart disease among cats. Heart muscles either become weak and dilated so they are unable to maintain proper blood flow or the heart muscles become thickened and restrict blood flow. Another type of cardiomyopathy is caused by scarring of the heart tissue restricting blood flow.

In dogs a common problem is mitral insufficiency in which the mitral valve of the heart (between the two chambers on the left side of the heart) does not close properly allowing blood to leak through and causing a heart murmur. This is more common in smaller breeds. Dogs can also suffer from dilated cardiomyopathy (enlarged, weakened heart), which is more common in larger breeds.

Congestive heart failure is basically the progression of heart disease to the point that the heart is no longer able to pump blood sufficiently to provide the animal’s system with enough oxygenated blood. As the body responds and other organs try to compensate, the body begins to retain fluid and symptoms become more severe.

Symptoms of heart disease include:

  • Fatigue / lethargy
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chronic cough (choking cough) or breathing difficulties
  • Blue-looking gums (from lack of oxygen)
  • Decreased appetite

The cough and shortness of breath seen in cats and dogs suffering from Heart Disease is a result of blood backing up into the lungs because the heart cannot pump it efficiently.  Fluid can also build up in the abdomen causing a bloated belly.  Any of these symptoms should send you straight to the veterinarian’s office. Heart disease is easier to treat the earlier it is detected. 

Proper diagnosis involves a full cardiac workup, x-rays and possibly more specialized monitoring such as echocardiography and EKG.  It is important to obtain a proper diagnosis as heart disease can be complex and will vary from animal to animal. Treatment needs to be specialized for the individual and will likely be most effective if it include both conventional and alternative treatments combined. If the problem is caught early enough, it may be possible to gradually reduce or eliminate conventional medications over time.

Alternative / Complementary Therapies

Diet is the place to start in helping your companion stabilize or improve once diagnosed with heart disease. Fresh food – either home-made or pre-packaged is best. Raw food would be first choice. The healthier the food is that the animal eats, the more fuel he has for healing and the less his body must work at filtering out toxins and waste products.  Pre-mixes,dehydrated, andfreeze-dried formulas can help take the hassle out of raw and homemade food.

Animals with heart disease or congestive heart failure are often put on low-sodium prescription diets. Not every animal with heart disease needs a low-sodium diet, but for some it is important – a consult with a holistic veterinarian can be very helpful in determining the ideal diet for a companion with heart disease. The prescription diets available are not usually high-quality food, and they tend to be rejected by many cats and dogs. If making your companions food does not fit with your lifestyle, then look for high-quality foods with the lowest sodium content. You will often need to contact the manufacturer for this information as it is not always listed on the label.  Prescription diets generally have a sodium content of 0.25% or less.

Proper mineral supplementation is important for animals with heart disease. Magnesium can help regulate muscle tone and heartbeat. Supplementing a single mineral, however, can sometimes affect the overall balance and proper absorption of other important minerals. Raw bones are an excellent source of balanced minerals (not bone meal). Kelp can also provide needed minerals and trace minerals.

Co-Enzyme Q10 (CoQ10) is widely used in the treatment of heart conditions for both humans and companion animals. It is directly involved in the energy function of all cells in the body and is supportive of heart function. It is also acts as an antioxidant helping to protect the cells from oxidation.  (It also contributes to periodontal health).

Vitamin E is recommended to help strengthen the heart muscles and improve circulation and is an important antioxidant. It can be found in a good antioxidant supplement or in gel caps at most health food stores. 

Selenium is an antioxidant mineral and works synergistically with vitamin E to improve heart muscle function. It is generally found in a good antioxidant supplement targeted to heart health

L-carnitine is an amino acid that can improve metabolism in the heart and help strengthen the heart muscle. It is especially indicated in dilated cardiomyopathy.

Taurine is another important amino acid for heart health and is especially important for cats as they must receive adequate taurine in the diet.  Taurine can benefit contraction of the heart muscle. Taurine is also important for cocker spaniels as they are susceptible to dilated cardiomyopathy. Taurine is a very safe supplement and is very important with home-prepared diets. It can be given at a dose of 500 mg 1 to 2 times a day. Less is likely needed for animals on commercially prepared diets.

Hawthorn is an herb high in phytochemicals that enhance blood flow to the heart and extremeties and also supports the pumping action of the heart muscle.  It may take up to 6 or 8 weeks to reach its greatest effect. 

Fish oil supplementation has been shown to be very beneficial for dogs with congestive heart failure. I recommend all my clients supplement withessential fatty acids as it provides multiple health benefits including healthier skin and coat, healthier digestive tract, and reduced inflammation throughout the body.

Detoxification of the animals system can support the overall health of the cat or dog and help any added vitamins and supplements be more effective.