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How's your pet's heart?


Mrs. Smith brought Brandy into my office late one afternoon. She was concerned because the little terrier had become inactive, had been coughing, and was having some trouble breathing. The dog had fainted on one of their walks last week and had recently developed a pothelly. A physical examination confirmed my first impression: Brandy was suffering from a failing heart.

Your pet's heart is the most important muscle in its body. Luckily, most cats and dogs don't have to worry about high blood pressure, clogged arteries, "heart attacks," or high cholesterol levels. However, just like us, pets often are victims of failing hearts. Fortunately, many of these problems are not only treatable, but preventable.

The first step in caring for your pet's heart is to schedule an annual physical examination with your veterinarian. This is especially important for any pet that is reaching middle age. When your pet is seen for its yearly physical, your veterinarian will check its heart and circulatory system. Abnormal heart sounds; extremely irregular, abnormal pulses; heart rates too fast or too slow; or other signs can lead your pet's doctor to suspect cardiac problems. Abnormalities can be discovered in their early stages, when they can be most easily and successfully treated. Your veterinarian will first check the color of your pet's gums and test the refill time to monitor the general state of the circulatory system. Pulses will be checked for rate and rhythm. Your vet will also listen to your pet's chest for abnormal lung or heart sounds. Although the exam may seem simple, it can tell your veterinarian a lot about your pet's heart. If heart disease is suspected, more testing will be recommended to get a precise diagnosis. A thorough workup may require a referral to a cardiac specialist or university facility.

Don't wait to take your pet in for an examination if you see symptoms that indicate a heart problem. When the failing heart is no longer able to supply an adequate blood flow to vital organs, fluid may "back up" and accumulate in the abdomen, liver, lungs, or legs. This fluid can cause a potbellied appearance, coughing (especially at night and with exercise), difficult or rapid breathing, a bluish color of the gums, or a reduced ability to exercise. Affected animals become "lazy" and lethargic. Some pets may have fainting episodes that can appear similar to mild seizures. In cats, sudden lameness or paralysis of the hind legs caused by blood clots of major arteries should send you running to your veterinarian immediately.

Little clinical research has been done concerning the role of high-salt (sodium) diets and heart disease of dogs and cats, but clinical experience has shown that reducing weight and restricting dietary sodium dramatically improve the condition of pets with heart disease. Just like owners, pets can acquire a taste for a salty diet. Almost all commercial pet foods contain large quantities of salt to improve the palatability of the ration. Unfortunately, most dogs and cats consume two to three times the sodium of a person on a typical fast-food diet. Low-sodium diets are available through most veterinarians and may even be beneficial for older animals with healthy hearts. Keeping weight at normal levels is important too.

Although fewer cats are seen with heart disease, they usually are victims of an enlarged heart. In 1987, researchers found a link between feline heart disease and low levels of the amino acid taurine. Since then, taurine supplementation of pet foods has been common, and the incidence of this problem has dropped dramatically. Cats have very specific nutritional needs and should be fed only high-quality commercial diets from major pet-food companies. Never feed cats generic or cheaper diets, or dog food.

Heartworm infection is a rapidly growing problem of dogs in almost all areas of the country. More cats are being diagnosed with clinical heartworm disease too. The heartworm causes a mechanical blockage that raises blood pressure and makes the heart work harder. This then leads to heart failure. Unfortunately, by the time symptoms appear, the disease is often advanced and has caused problems in other body organs. Yearly screening tests and regular preventive medication are recommended for all dogs. Some veterinarians are also treating cats in high-risk areas.

Treatment of pet heart disease is very similar to that used for people. Your veterinarian may prescribe drugs in addition to weight reduction, decreased exercise, and a low-sodium diet. Some pets have even benefited from the implantation of pacemakers to keep the heart rate at a normal level. The greatest chance of a successful treatment is when an accurate diagnosis has been made so treatment can be started in the earliest stages before serious complications occur. This is why annual physical examinations (especially for pets over eight years of age) are so important. Here are a few things we can do to ensure that our pets live a long, healthy life.

* Feed your pet a high-quality, nutritionally complete diet. Supplement cat diets with some clams or salmon two or three times a week, or ask your vet about the advisability of a taurine supplement. Don't supplement or feed extras without your vet's approval. Limit your pet's salt intake. Avoid giving pets softened water to drink.

* Treat infectious diseases promptly. Some common bacterial and viral infections can cause heart problems.

* Get regular veterinary care. All animals over eight years of age should have complete physical examinations at vet-recommended intervals. Blood tests, chest X-rays, and electrocardiograms are helpful. Keep vaccinations and heartworm prevention current.

* Avoid stressing your pet. Start all exercise programs slowly. Avoid getting your pet overheated.
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Author:Hoeppner, Gabrielle
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Sep 1, 1990
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