Just like their pet parents, dogs can suffer from congestive heart failure (CHF). A diagnosis of CHF can be hard to accept, but we’ve got some information to help you and your pup. There’s currently no cure available for this condition, and its progressive (gets worse) over time.
In this article, we’ll take a look at what CHF is, how it’s diagnosed and treated. We’ll also look for information on how you can make your dog’s life a little easier and more comfortable, too.
What is Congestive Heart Failure?
Congestive heart failure (also called CHF), is a condition where the heart has trouble pumping the right amount of blood around the body. The name may suggest that this condition causes the heart to stop beating or to fail, but this isn’t the case. CHF causes the valves of the heart to become scarred, resulting in thickened scar tissue that prevents valves from functioning normally. In fact, one form of congestive heart failure is known as “leaky mitral valve” or mitral valve insufficiency (MVI). Fluid accumulates on one or both sides of the heart, and the heart becomes enlarged as it works harder to pump blood. Fluid can accumulate in the heart, lungs or even in the abdomen.
CHF can be caused by many problems, but is most often caused by a problem called mitral valve insufficiency (MVI), also known as leaky mitral valve. The second most common problem that can cause CHF is called dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), where the chambers of the heart become enlarged. This medical issue can also develop on the right side of the heart, or even both sides. CHF can also be caused by a congenital heart defect (birth defect), old age, a poor diet, injury, high blood pressure, heart worms or even an infection can all lead to congestive heart failure.
The condition is most common in dogs by the age of 7 or 8; however, younger dogs can also develop congestive heart failure. The condition is usually considered incurable or irreversible as it progressively worsens over time, depending on the cause
Signs & Symptoms of Congestive Heart Failure in Dogs
Most dogs may not show signs in the earliest stages of the disease; however, as it progresses, CHF signs and symptoms can include:
- Difficulty breathing (labored and/or rapid breathing)
- Lethargy and/or weakness
- Gray or blue gums (from lack of oxygen)
- Abdominal distension (caused by blood gathering in this area)
- Fainting or collapsing
- Sudden death
- Exercise intolerance
- Vomiting and diarrhea
- Swelling legs
- Fluid sounds in the lungs
- Inability to rest and get comfortable
- Weight loss (extreme)
- Abdomen distension
- Increased coughing
If you notice your dog having seizures, extreme difficulty breathing, crying/whining due to pain, bleeding, or suddenly collapsing, then consider these signs of an emergency and get your pup to the vet immediately. These could be signs of a dog dying of heart failure. Dogs who have congestive heart failure will tire more easily and will often start to cough. The reasons for coughing can include fluid retention in the lungs, and enlarged heart that pushes against the trachea, causing irritation and the urge to cough. Dogs with this condition may no longer have the stamina for walks, playing and more.
Diagnosis is done through a physical exam and tests. Your vet may run certain blood tests, and will listen for fluid in your fur baby’s lungs and run the following tests to check for congestive heart failure:
- Measuring blood pressure
- Ultrasound (echocardiogram, to check the heart’s function and structure)
- ECG (electrocardiogram)
- Chest X-rays
- Blood tests (CBC, biochemical panel, heart-worm test)
- Urine tests
If the vet diagnoses your dog with CHF, then they may refer your pup to a veterinary cardiologist for further assessment and treatment.
Treatment of CHF in Dogs
The main goal of treatment in congestive heart failure is to reduce fluid buildup, while increasing blood flow throughout the body. The ultimate goal is to make the dog feel better and improve quality of life, and possibly extend the dog’s life.
Treatment may include certain medications such as an ACE inhibitor. These medications work to relax the blood vessels, while preventing the production of angiotensin II, an enzyme created by the body to narrow the blood vessels, and stop the release of hormones that can increase blood pressure. These drugs are used to help the heart not to work any harder. ACE inhibitors mostly commonly used in dogs include nitroglycerine (Nitrostat), hydralazine (Apresoline) and sodium nitroprusside (Nipride). Diuretics are another common treatment for CHF. These medications work to remove the fluid accumulated in the lungs, or abdomen. The most common diuretic for dogs is furosemide.
Other drugs may include drugs classified as “positive inotropes.” These medications help the heart increase the force of each beat, which makes the heart pump more blood around the body. Some of the most common medications of this type (used in dogs) include Pimobendan (Vetmedin), digoxin, milrinone and dobutamine. From time to time, your vet will determine if your dog would benefit from his medications being “tweaked.” This may mean an increase in the dose of medication or possibly changing to a different medication that would better help your fur baby.
Your precious pet may also need to take these medications for the rest of his life—it will depend on the underlying cause of the condition
Additional treatments for dogs with CHF can prevent or even improve CHF, including:
- Limiting the salt in your dog’s diet
- Giving medications exactly directed by the veterinarian
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Supplements: taurine (especially for Cocker Spaniels, St. Bernards, English Setters, Newfoundlands, and Golden Retrivers), and Omega 3 fatty acids, vitamin B, carnitine, etc.
How Long Will my Dog Live with Congestive Heart Failure?
Dog congestive heart failure life expectancy will vary depending on the overall health of your dog, his age, etc. Generally, dogs with congestive heart failure are able to live for several months after diagnosis. Some dogs can even live on for years, it just depends on the extent and severity of the disease.
Caring for your dog, after CHF diagnosis, will be an ongoing process. It will take commitment and dedication on your part. Of course, it’s a good idea to also speak with your vet about end-of-life arrangements. Making those decisions now can help you when the time comes. But remember, your dog could live for years with early diagnosis and the proper treatment—so don’t give up or despair if your fur baby’s been diagnosed with congestive heart failure.
Heart failure eventually leads to death, and keeping your dog comfortable and pain-free as long as possible is the goal of treatment. It may come down to euthanizing your dog if his quality of life is lowered so much that he’s not able to enjoy life at all. You may be wondering “does a dog suffer with congestive heart failure?” The short answer is yes, if the disease has progressed to the point of causing pain, breathing difficulties and an overall loss in quality of life.
Dog Congestive Heart Failure When to Put Down
As CHF progresses, the body will try to adapt as much as possible to keep blood flowing. But there comes a time when the disease has become too much for the body to handle. At this point medications often no longer work, either. Throughout the process, a dog may not feel any pain, but only more tired and weak. The later stages can be harder for you and your dog to handle. Eventually you’ll need to make a decision on when to have your dog put down. How do you know when it’s time?
Most veterinarians advise to look for signs that your pup’s no longer enjoying life. Is he suffering more and more? Is it getting hard to breathe? Can he manage to get up and walk, potty and eat? When a dog has problems with these main functions, life becomes much harder for him. As a pet parent, it’s difficult to make the decision to end your precious pet’s life. We love our fur babies and try to do everything possible to maintain their comfort and health. We love their companionship, spending time together, etc. It’s almost impossible to imagine life without our canine companion. So, it’s hard to make the decision to put your dog down.
However, as we explore our feelings and issues about putting down a precious companion, we need to put our pet’s best interests before our own. Does your dog still seem happy? Does he still interact with you and the family? Maybe he’s having trouble walking, but is still eating well, etc. If your dog is failing, but still seems happy, then it may not be the right time to consider euthanasia. As you spend time with your dog, watch how he’s doing. Is he having increased trouble sleeping well? Does he seem very uncomfortable? Is he coughing quite a bit (especially at night)? Is he losing weight and unable to walk? These may be signs that it’s time to help your dog find relief. When suffering becomes the main fact of life, it’s time to consider putting your dog down.
Putting down a dog is heart breaking, there’s no getting around it. But we need to think of our dog’s well- being before our own feelings and wants. Giving your pup the release he needs is the kindest last gift you can offer, though it breaks your heart into a million tiny pieces. This is the hardest time for being a pet parent and the need for this kind of decision.
Is CHF Preventable?
Most forms of canine congestive heart failure are not preventable; however, there are some things you can do to help keep your dog’s heart healthy for as long as possible.
1). Manage your dog’s weight: being overweight or obese puts a strain on the heart, which can lead to heart problems later. Keeping your dog’s weight at a healthy point can greatly help his heart in the long run. Exercise and healthy diet can help manage your pup’s weight.
2). Treating for heart-worms: heart-worms are one cause of CHF in dogs, and giving your dog medication against heart-worms can help prevent congestive heart failure caused by this parasite.
3). Regular checkups: taking your dog to the vet for regular (annual) checkups can help you and your vet to catch any heart problems in the early stages of the CHF. When diagnosed and treated early, your dog has a better chance for living longer—possibly even years—after diagnosis.
While CHF is generally incurable, keeping your dog at a healthy weight, treating him for heart-worms and getting regular checkups will keep him and his heart stronger and healthier in the long run. And remember that early diagnosis and treatment can prolong your dog’s life after a CHF diagnosis. We hope the information in this article helps you to become more aware of the possibility of congestive heart failure in your dog. This is a difficult diagnosis, but early diagnosis and treatment can prolong your pup’s life and happiness in spite of the condition.
KimKim is a talented author, who loves animals especially dogs. She engaged in writing books and articles relating to animals a decade ago. Kim resides in Chicago with her husband and son. The family is the proud owner of a dog and a parrot (Jack and Lily). Kim wanted more than these two pets, but her husband put his foot down... She often visits elementary schools to talk to the kids about what she learned about pets and how they could learn from them.
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