Canine Congestive Heart Failure: What Is It and How Is It Treated?

(Photo by Razvan Antonescu)

A Note From Dr. John:

Here at PetMart, we talk a lot about congestive heart failure.  Some of our most popular medications are Vetmedin, Spironolactone, Furosemide, and Enalapril- all used to treat pets in congestive heart failure.  Once a pet is diagnosed, they are typically on these medications for life.  But what exactly is this condition, and how is it treated?

First off, it is worth noting that both dogs and cats can suffer from congestive heart failure.  That being said, feline congestive heart failure has a very different presentation and treatment plan than that of canine congestive heart failure.  Here, we will focus on heart failure in dogs, however, we’ll discuss this condition in cats in a later article.  

Congestive heart failure is the result of end-stage cardiac disease, typically found in older dogs.  Both small and large dogs can develop congestive heart failure.  Though the underlying disease processes that lead to this condition can vary, the end result is often the same.  In order to understand heart failure and how it is treated, it is important to first understand the physiology of the beating heart.

The canine heart is a four-chambered pump which functions to provide blood to the bod’s organs.  Between each heart chamber are valves which prevent backward flow of blood during each heart contraction.  As the heart ages, the valves can start to leak and the heart muscle fibers begin to stretch, allowing blood to flow backwards.  If this happens with the left side of the heart, fluid builds in the lungs, causing coughing and respiratory issues.  If the right side of the heart fails, fluid accumulates in the abdomen, causing abdominal distension, diarrhea, and difficulty breathing.  As you can see, heart failure can lead to many different clinical signs that may seem completely unrelated to the heart.

Unfortunately, heart failure cannot be cured.  Thankfully, it can be managed with the help of your veterinarian.  Therapeutic drugs such as furosemide and enalapril have been around for decades.  These drugs help to remove excess fluid from the body, allowing for resolution of clinical signs such as coughing, respiratory distress, and abdominal distension.  A newer drug called Vetmedin, has proven to be a game changer when treating heart disease as well.  With its release, the veterinary field has been able to improve the lifespan of dogs identified as having underlying heart disease (the leaky valve variety, not the stretched heart variety) that have not yet developed the classical clinical signs of coughing and respiratory issues.  Studies show that when implemented early, Vetmedin can increase lifespan by a whopping 15 months!  That’s an incredible number, and as a veterinarian myself, I could not be more excited!

Remember, canine heart disease is a complex issue that comes in many different shapes and sizes.  Always consult your veterinarian to ensure that your pet’s condition is accurately diagnosed and safely treated.

Our information is not intended to replace the advice of your veterinarian.  Do not use this information for diagnostic purposes. Always take your pet to your veterinarian to obtain a diagnosis and course of treatment.