Unfortunately, similar to humans, as our pets age, so do their hearts. Signs can be different between species and may present differently for each individual; however, there are some telltale signs that you may see and that should throw up a red flag.
During yearly/bi-yearly exams, we will auscultate (listen with a stethoscope) to your pet’s heart. This allows us to determine whether they have a heart murmur. A heart murmur is an abnormal whooshing sound between the lub-dub beats of the heart. We also check for an arrhythmia, which is an abnormal rhythm of the heart. There are normal and abnormal arrhythmias so not every variation is worrisome.
If we do notice a new or worsening murmur or arrhythmia, there are a few different steps we may suggest. Our recommendations are based on the age of your pet, history of prior murmurs/arrhythmias, medications, clinical signs you may have noticed, breed, and other factors.
Murmurs are graded from 1-6 based on multiple criteria however mainly the intensity of the whooshing noise. For a new murmur in an older dog that is mild, we may have you watch it at home and recheck in 6 months. For worse murmurs, or pending your answers to certain questions, we may recommend X-rays of the heart or a cardiac ultrasound (echocardiogram) with one of our cardiologists: Dr. Meg Sleeper or Penn Vet Specialist Dr. Marc Kraus.
Regardless of whether it is decided to watch your pet for clinical signs, or investigate further with diagnostics, there are a few changes you can watch for at home. In dogs, the earliest signs we look for are an occasional cough that is becoming more frequent or severe, increase in breathing rate at rest, abdominal effort to breath, abdominal swelling, fainting (syncopal events), or even just general lethargy. In cats, we tend to see similar signs without the cough.
The earliest signs are usual a progressive cough or an increase in resting respiratory rate. Counting the number of breaths of your pet at complete rest is an easy way to keep track of a potential problem. Most patients should breathe less than 30 times in a minute unless discussed with your veterinarian. Panting does not count! Sleeping is also not the best time if a pet is dreaming, this may increase their breathing rate.
Picking up on the earliest clinical signs and seeking re-evaluation as soon as possible, may prevent hospitalization, rapid decline, or other possible sequelae to untreated heart disease.
Author: Dr. Edward Aller