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5 Myths About Heart Disease in Animals

Whether we learned it through health class, the media, or experiences in our own lives we generally have a good idea of what keeps our hearts healthy! We know that lifestyle choices like not smoking, eating a well-balanced diet, regular exercise, and avoiding stress greatly reduce our chances of acquiring heart disease. When we hear that our dog or cat has heart disease, it’s easy to assume some of the same principles apply.

However, there are many important differences between human and animal heart disease! It is our hope that the following Common Myths About Animal Heart Disease will give you greater clarity on how heart disease impacts your furry friend, and what we can do about it.

Myth #1: A healthy diet will reduce my pet’s risk of developing heart disease.

The most common form of human heart disease is Coronary Artery Disease. In coronary artery disease cholesterol (plaque) accumulates, narrowing or blocking an artery. Coronary artery disease is the primary cause of heart attacks in humans, and what we typically think of when we think of heart disease.

cat burger
While there are plenty of reasons we don’t recommend a regular diet of cheeseburgers, fatty and greasy foods do not cause heart disease in pets.

How do humans prevent high cholesterol? We avoid fatty, greasy, high-cholesterol foods! It makes sense to apply this principle to your pet also. However, your pet’s heart disease is not caused by plaque in his or her arteries.

Dogs and cats are both susceptible to one of two types of heart disease:

  • Heart muscle disease
  • Heart valve disease

While a balanced diet (such as a high quality kibble or canned pet food) is integral to your pet’s overall well-being, the standard human “Heart Healthy” diet will not prevent your pet from developing heart disease.

Myth #2: My pet’s heart disease was caused by an unhealthy diet/too little exercise.

If a healthy diet can not prevent animal heart disease, it stands to reason that an unhealthy diet does not cause it! This is only a partial myth. While most forms of animal heart disease are not directly related to diet and exercise, the heart DOES have to work harder in overweight dogs and cats. Overweight dogs may also experience hypertension.

Maintaining a healthy weight through measured feedings and regular exercise will help your pet avoid many chronic diseases such as arthritis, diabetes, and hypertension.

Myth #3: Running will improve my pet’s cardiac health.

Workout pug
Pets with heart disease may need to limit rather than increase their activity!

When there’s concern for you or I developing heart disease, our doctors may tell us to strap on our running shoes and pound out some extra miles on the pavement! Aerobic exercise keeps our heart muscles trim and improves their functionality.

However, the opposite may be true for your pet. As we mentioned before, dogs and cats are susceptible to two types of heart disease: valvular and muscular. This results in either a thickening or a stretching of the heart muscle, or backwards blood flow (regurgitation) through a leaky valve. Both can reduce the heart’s ability to effectively pump.

Vigorous aerobic exercise, such as running, may actually put more strain on your pet’s heart! Based on diagnostic findings, your veterinary cardiologist may recommend reducing or limiting your pet’s activities to promote heart health.

Myth #4: My pet is going to have a heart attack.

We know the signs of a heart attack: chest pain, shortness of breath, weakness, and sometimes even death. It’s scary to imagine our pets experiencing something so unpredictable and dangerous! However, dogs and cats do not have heart attacks in the same sense that humans do. Most human heart attacks occur when an artery is obstructed and the heart cannot continue to pump blood.

In some cases, pets with heart disease experience fainting! These episodes (syncope) resemble a heart attack, but do not cause permanent damage.

Symptoms of your pet’s heart disease will often be much subtler. Rather than a heart attack, your pet will be at risk for developing congestive heart failure. Signs of congestive heart failure include lethargy, rapid or labored breathing, decreased energy, coughing, and abdominal swelling. These symptoms may be gradual or sudden onset. For more information on monitoring your pet and what constitutes an emergency, please check out our Emergency 101 blog!

Myth #5: There’s nothing I can do about my pet’s heart disease.

While it’s true there is no cure for most pets’ heart conditions, there are still many treatment options available! With the right combination of medications and diagnostics we are often able to manage symptoms, slow the progression of cardiac disease, and extend your pet’s lifespan with improved quality of life.

What are some common misconceptions you’ve heard about pets with heart disease? Let us know in the comments!