All Things Dog

Common Diseases in Older Dogs: Heart disease

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For all mammals, the heart is the central organ of the body—the organ responsible for pumping blood throughout the body via a network of veins and arteries.

However, as a dog ages, the artery walls begin to stiffen and lose elasticity, increasing the resistance to blood flow. This stiffening of the arteries occurs throughout the body, reducing the blood supply to all the major organs. When the flow of blood is impaired due to heart disease, blood may back up into the heart, lungs or other organs. This can cause constriction of the blood vessels, which usually results in high blood pressure, congestion of the lungs, or fluid buildup in the abdomen or other tissues. The kidneys may also be affected.

Types of heart disease

The type of heart disease a dog contracts often depends on its size. Smaller dogs tend to have problems with the heart valves, and larger dogs tend to suffer from diseases of the heart muscle itself, causing abnormal rhythms and muscle weakness. This condition is known as cardiomyopathy.

Chronic Valvular Disease

This condition is most prevalent in the males of smaller breeds. With this form of heart disease, the valves of the heart become thickened and blood starts to "leak" back through the valves, reducing the efficiency of each heartbeat. This condition could eventually lead to congestive heart failure. What's more, the lack of blood to the kidneys causes salt and water retention, which increases the amount of blood that the heart must pump, often complicating the disease.

Cardiomyopathy

Cardiomyopathy is a disease of the heart muscle that reduces the pumping function of the heart. Symptoms may include reduced exercise tolerance, fainting, heart murmur, arrhythmias, and enlargement of the heart. Cardiomyopathy usually affects large- or giant-breed dogs.

Since many older dogs tend to exercise less, this particular symptom may not be immediately obvious. That's why it's so crucial to take your dog for regular vet visits as he gets older. Your vet should be able to notice the symptoms that may not be visible to you.

Heartworm

Heartworm infection is also a serious problem for dogs. Heartworm larvae are transmitted by mosquitoes and, when they mature, the heartworms move to the heart and pulmonary arteries, causing blood vessels to dilate.

Symptoms of heartworm disease include coughing, difficulty breathing, and vomiting. If untreated, the heart becomes infested with worms and will eventually fail.

Common signs of heart disease

A persistent cough, especially in the case of older dogs, is a common symptom of heart disease. Other signs that your dog may have heart disease include a lack of appetite, weight loss, fainting, swelling of the abdomen, difficulty breathing, and the inability to get comfortable when trying to sleep at night. The last symptom results from fluid buildup around the lungs when the dog lies down. This condition makes it difficult for the dog to breathe. Breathing problems and abdominal swelling tend to occur in more advanced stages of heart disease.

Since many older dogs tend to exercise less, this particular symptom may not be immediately obvious. That's why it's so crucial to take your dog for regular vet visits as he gets older. Your vet should be able to notice the symptoms that may not be visible to you.

How you can help

To catch signs of heart disease early, it's essential that you take your dog for an annual checkup. By the time your dog reaches seven years old, you should be taking him for an examination every six months, since a condition can develop rapidly. Early detection will help prolong your dog's life.

If you discover that your dog has heart disease, your vet may recommend therapies that include weight control, gentle exercise, and the use of certain drugs. The vet may also recommend a low-salt diet to minimize water retention.

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