OVRS_iStock_000023826783_DoubleA diagnosis of congestive heart failure for your pet can certainly be an intimidating one. As with many things in life, though, it is much scarier when you don’t really understand it.  Keep reading to learn what you need to know about congestive heart failure in pets.

What is Congestive Heart Failure?

Congestive heart failure (CHF) is a medical term that means the heart is not pumping efficiently. This has many implications, including coughing, trouble breathing, restlessness, and decreased energy. Depending on the cause, CHF may be right-sided or left-sided.

Right-sided heart failure – Right-sided congestive heart failure happens when the heart does not efficiently pump blood into the lungs to be oxygenated. This means that the blood backs up into the rest of the circulatory system, resulting in fluid accumulation in the abdomen. This fluid accumulation, called ascites, is uncomfortable and can interfere with the functioning of the organs in the abdomen.

Left-sided heart failure – Left-sided congestive heart failure, the more common form of heart failure, happens when the heart cannot pump the blood back into the systemic circulation effectively. This results in the back up of blood in the lungs, causing fluid to accumulate in the lung tissues. This is called pulmonary edema and interferes with breathing.

What Causes Congestive Heart Failure in Pets?

The heart is a complicated organ, and congestive heart failure in pets can have many causes. The causes of CHF can be divided into two main categories:

Valvular disease – The heart has four valves that are the gatekeepers of the heart, making sure that blood continues to flow in the correct direction. Sometimes these valves do not function properly. This can be a problem a pet is born with or one that develops over time. Most congestive heart failure in dogs is caused by a valve problem.

Cardiomyopathy – Cardiomyopathy, or a problem in the muscle of the heart, is more common in cats than it is dogs. In this condition the muscular walls of the heart become abnormally thick, interfering with its ability to pump.

Other health problems can also cause congestive heart failure. These can include the narrowing of major blood vessels, heart rhythm problems, and infection with parasites such as heartworms.

What Can Be Done for Pets with CHF?

If we suspect that a pet might be suffering from congestive heart failure based on history and physical examination, we may recommend radiographs (x-rays) of the chest or an echocardiogram (heart ultrasound) to further investigate the problem. Sometimes an electrocardiogram (ECG) is also ordered to investigate the electrical function of the heart.

Depending on the cause of a pet’s heart problem, there may be a few different options. If there is an underlying issue, such as a heartworm infection or congenital problem, that is able to be fixed with medication or surgery, that is usually the most effective treatment.

Unfortunately, many heart conditions that result in congestive heart failure cannot be fixed. Instead, they must be managed; usually with a combination of medications individualized to the specific problem. Pets that have a heart condition need close monitoring to be sure that their treatment is as effective as possible.

Congestive heart failure in pets can be a complicated disease, but with our help many pets with a heart condition continue living a happy life for much longer than they would without treatment. An accurate diagnosis is essential for us to target our treatment successfully and have the best possible outcome.

While the words “heart failure” need to be taken seriously, our expert cardiology team also takes our responsibility to help your pet seriously. Together we can help these pets when they need help most.