When I first heard the term “Congestive Heart Failure” (CHF), it was in connection to a friend of mine who had just been diagnosed with it. When you put the words “heart” and “failure” together in the same sentence, it sends chills up the spine. Not knowing anything about the disease, I expected her to keel over at any moment! That didn’t happen because she was under the care of a cardiologist and keeping the disease under control.
About eight years ago, one of my dogs was diagnosed with CHF. She had been very sick from pneumonia and hospitalized at the Veterinarian Referral and Critical Care Hospital for 3 weeks. She was coughing a lot, was frequently kept inside an the oxygen chamber and had to be intubated a few times because her breathing stopped!
It was a terrifying time for all of us. She was finally able to come home and we were scared to death that she would stop breathing or have a horrible coughing fit. She was on cough medication and did fairly well, but eventually the cough got worse.
We were referred to a cardiologist by our local vet who did many tests, including an echocardiogram. The diagnosis — she had congestive heart failure.
When Your Pet Has Congestive Heart Failure
Congestive heart failure tends to be more prevalent in older and obese dogs. Toy and teacup-sized breeds, as well as very large dog breeds, are more prone to the disease. It can also be congenital.
Basically, the heart is unable to pump the blood to the areas of the body and the heart enlarges due to the extra work and fluid build up in the lungs. There is no cure for the disease, but it can be controlled.
Symptoms of Congestive Heart Failure
The answer as to what causes the disease is very similar to what happens when people have heart disease that progresses to become CHF — diet, lack of exercise, infection, injury, old age, hereditary or some combination of these.
Symptoms of CHF include coughing (especially after a walk or exercise), tiring easily, restlessness and pacing before bedtime with even more coughing before bed. As the disease progresses, your pet may have a swollen belly from fluid buildup, her tongue may have a blue tint after exercise and your pet may faint from poor oxygen flow. Also, you may notice that she is losing weight.
All of these symptoms are frightening, but important indicators that you pet needs to seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible.
What You Can Expect From the Vet
A diagnosis of CHF is fairly simple. The vet will listen to her heart, take blood pressure, x-rays, EKG and ultrasound and perform blood work to get an accurate picture of the stage of CHF your pet is in. The goal for everyone is to do whatever is possible to make your pet more comfortable and live a longer, healthier life.
According to an article from Tufts University’s Cummings Veterinary Medical Center:
The specific treatment for congestive heart failure depends on the underlying heart disease and how severe the heart failure is. The primary goals of treating congestive heart failure are to reduce this buildup of fluid and to increase the amount of blood being pumped by the heart to the lungs and the rest of the body. These outcomes are meant to improve the quality and length of a pet’s life. A variety of medications, supplements and diets are available to help reach these goals.
Unfortunately, there is no way to know how quickly the disease will advance. My dog has had this disease for about 7 years and the disease has been slow to progress. I know other people whose pets were diagnosed with CHF and only lived a few years.
The purpose of the medications is to help the heart beat efficiently, to help remove fluids from lungs and around the heart and control the cough. So blood pressure medication, diuretics, heart medication, bronchodilators to keep airways open and cough medication with a mild narcotic in it are typically prescribed for your pet. Diet should be low in fat and salt-free because salt retains fluids in the body.
When Your Pet Has Been Dealt a Bad Hand
It is a horrible experience to see your pet coughing and not able to get a breath — and the more they cough, the harder it is because the trachea becomes inflamed and can collapse. My dog takes 7 medications, twice per day, and we have a prescribed protocol for extra cough meds if she gets into trouble.
If that doesn’t work, we are in the car and off to the emergency vet hospital. Fortunately, we have only had to do that once when she just couldn’t stop coughing and had completely exhausted herself. She was put in oxygen chamber which helps to increase oxygen in her system.
I hope that none of your pets ever get this disease. It is a terrible one. However, if you do notice any of the typical symptoms, don’t hesitate to get your pet checked immediately. And, if your vet doesn’t feel qualified to treat your dog, you may be referred to a cardiologist. They have the latest and most effective methods to treat the disease.
If your pet develops Congestive Heart Failure or you’d like to know more about it, here are two links to get you started.
Carole Tomas is the owner and president of Pet Pleasers, Inc. She is a graduate of Ohio University and a Charter Member of the National Association of Professional Pet Sitters. When she began Pet Pleasers in 1985, business was conducted Old School via a landline, snail mail and an answering machine the size of a breadbox. No internet, email, text messaging, digital photos, social media or mobile phones! What has remained constant over three decades: Carole’s love of animals and an unwavering passion for professional pet sitting.