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Veterinary Cardiology 101

An Overview of Veterinary Cardiology

Heart disease in our pets is a complex and sensitive matter. There are several different types of heart disease -- each with different signs and symptoms, as well as different treatments. In an attempt to continue to educate our clients, we wrote this primer to increase understanding of small animal heart disease; focusing on the most common heart diseases in our companion animals, and answering some of the most frequently asked questions.

There are several breeds that are predisposed to developing heart disease:

  • Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
  • Dachshund
  • Doberman Pinscher
  • Boxer
  • German Shepard
  • Great Dane
  • Irish Wolfhound
  • American Shorthair
  • Maine Coon
  • Persian
  • Siamese
  • Ragdoll
  • Sphynx

Heredity, Congenital, and Acquired Heart Disease

We all know that normal heart function is critical; if heart disease interrupts your pet’s normal cardiovascular function, the entire body can be compromised. But, how much do you know about the different types of heart disease? Heart disease in pets can be hereditary, congenital, or acquired. In other words, the disease can be transmitted from their parents, present at birth, or the disease develops throughout the pet’s life


Hereditary diseases are conditions caused by faulty genetic material passed on from one’s parents. These conditions can be present at birth or develop shortly thereafter. Therefore, if you know that a parent or sibling of your pet had a heart condition, it would be prudent to screen your pet for heart disease.


Congenital diseases are similar to hereditary conditions, but are always present at birth and are not always (but can be) from parental genetics. Congenital diseases develop in utero (while your pet is in the womb), and can be caused by several factors, including genetic defects, environmental factors, infectious agents, exposure to toxins/medications, or poor maternal nutrition.


Acquired diseases are those that are not present at birth, and instead develop later in  your pet’s life. Examples of acquired heart diseases in pets includes Myxomatous Valvular Degeneration, Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy, and Dilated Cardiomyopathy.

Signs of Heart Disease in Dogs and Cats

In the beginning stages of heart disease, the body will adjust to compensate for the abnormalities posed by the disease.  As a result, early signs of disease can be hard to detect. However, as the disease progresses to a severe state, signs of heart failure are more easily detected. Here are some common signs of heart disease in dogs and cats:

  • Unusual or excessive coughing
  • Fainting or collapsing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue or lethargy
  • Breathing problems
  • Sudden collapse
  • Sudden hind leg paralysis
  • Lethargy
  • Weight loss/ loss of appetite

Diagnosis of Heart Disease in Pets

Once you spot the signs of heart disease in your pet, or if your veterinarian finds an abnormality upon listening to your pet’s heart, there are a few diagnostic tests to consider.Heart murmurs will always benefit from medical investigation as to the cause, as the diagnostic tests are not invasive.  In puppies and kittens a murmur could be a sign of congenital conditions that may cause significant health problems. In older dogs and cats, early diagnostics will serve as a baseline to allow better monitoring of acquired disease.

Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG)

An ECG is a simple test that is used to check the rhythm of your pet’s heart. Sensors are attached to the skin and detect the electrical signals of the heart.

Chest Radiographs (X-rays)

A chest x-ray produces images of your pet’s heart and lungs, as well the surrounding skeletal structures. X-rays are a good screening test in some cases, but are not as sensitive and specific as other testing.


An echocardiogram is an ultrasound of the heart.  It is used to both detect and monitor heart disease by checking the structure and function of the heart.  An echocardiogram is a non-invasive, safe diagnostic test.

Blood Pressure

Blood pressure tests for pets are conducted the same way as for humans, with an inflatable cuff placed around your pet’s paw or tail. It is non-invasive and non-painful and can be done in a calm and conscious patient.

Treatment of Heart Disease in Dogs and Cats

There are a number of different treatments available for pets with heart conditions, but most conditions are treated with medication. The treatment that your veterinarian recommends will depend entirely on the condition that your pet has, and its severity.


Some heart conditions will not require treatment in their early stages, but instead will need regular monitoring and checkups in order to start medications when they are indicated.


Generally, oral medications are used to help the heart work efficiently , slow disease progression, and help the body cope with decreasing cardiac function. Medication will not cure your pet’s heart condition, but it will help to reduce symptoms and prevent life-threatening events. Even with medication, heart conditions will become progressively worse over time. In cases where the heart disease is caused by another condition, treating the underlying cause will form part of the overall strategy.


In some cases, monitoring and changing your pet’s diet may be beneficial to their condition. It may help to improve their quality of life and reduce symptoms depending on the severity and type of disease. However, the most important factor to consider when changing your pet’s diet is that they eat an appropriate amount of food to maintain their healthy weight.For all pets with congestive heart failure from severe heart disease, we aim to reduce the amount of sodium in their diet as excessive consumption of sodium can contribute to worsening congestive heart failure.  Mild heart disease does not require diet changes, while moderate heart disease would benefit from avoiding high salt treats, but not actual sodium restriction. However, we must remember that it is more important that your pet eat an appropriate amount of food to maintain their healthy weight rather than eating only a very small amount of a low sodium diet.