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Congestive Heart Failure in Dogs: What You Need to Know

Congestive heart failure in dogs is a cumulative problem normally caused by an enlarged heart or a heart-valve malfunction.

 |  Jul 24th 2014  |   2 Contributions


One reason it's important to offer our dogs a good diet and regular exercise is to avoid cumulative problems such as congestive heart failure. Unlike other medical conditions that afflict dog health, congestive heart failure in dogs does not have a single, easily identifiable cause or culprit. What's worse is that some small dog breeds and large dog breeds are genetically predisposed to heart issues that can lead to congestive heart failure.

If your dog develops congestive heart failure, however, it is a problem that can be managed, though it means regular veterinary appointments for the remainder of their lives, along with a course of regular medication. Let's look at congestive heart failure in dogs and see how it might be prevented.

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Congestive heart failure is not a single problem, but a constellation of issues that affect blood flow. Funny Dog in Red Heart Shaped Glasses Relaxing on Green Grass by Shutterstock.

What is congestive heart failure in dogs?

To put it simply, congestive heart failure in dogs arises when a dog's heart becomes incapable of providing fresh, oxygenated blood in sufficient quantities to the body. It typically develops as a result of two distinct dog heart problems. The two most common causes are malfunctioning heart valves or an enlarged heart.

Causes of congestive heart failure in dogs

In small dog breeds, the most common cause of congestive heart failure is a valve malfunction called mitral insufficiency. When a heart functions normally, blood flows from the left atrium to the left ventricle, and from there to the rest of the body. When a dog has mitral insufficiency, the valve between atrium and ventricle fails to close properly, and blood leaks back into the left atrium. Over time, the effects of this leakage can lead to congestive heart failure.

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In small dog breeds, congestive heart failure can result from mitral insufficiency. A cute lover valentine havanese puppy dog with a red heart is lying on a blue blanket background by Shutterstock.

Mitral insufficiency is a particular risk for toy and teacup dogs. While any dog breed of any size, including mixes, can be afflicted by a faulty heart valve, at-risk smaller dog breeds include the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Dachshund, Pekingese, and Yorkshire Terrier. Your veterinarian may check for irregularities in blood flow, such as heart murmurs.

In large dog breeds, the most common cause of congestive heart failure is the cumulative strain placed on an enlarged heart. This condition is called dilated cardiomyopathy, which simply means that the heart muscle grows weaker through having to work harder. An enlarged heart becomes inefficient at getting fresh blood to vital systems. Over time, lack of sufficient fresh blood begins to affect these other systems, including the lungs, liver, and kidneys.

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Large dog breeds develop congestive heart failure in dogs as a consequence of an enlarged heart. Beautiful cute husky puppy in room by Shutterstock.

Dilated cardiomyopathy is a particular risk for some of the larger dog breeds. When blood flow is not timely or efficient, blood can begin to pool in unwanted places, including the lungs, around the joints, and the abdomen. Large dog breeds at risk for developing an enlarged heart are the Afghan Hound, Boxer, Doberman Pinscher, Great Dane, Irish Wolfhound, Saint Bernard, and Scottish Deerhound.

Symptoms of congestive heart failure in dogs

Because congestive heart failure tends to be a cumulative issue, symptoms might not appear until the condition is advanced. The symptoms of congestive heart failure in dogs include coughing, which indicates blood that has leaked and pooled in the lungs. Trouble sleeping, or pacing at times they'd normally be sleeping, is another symptom. If a normally happy and energetic dog is quickly fatigued after very little physical activity, this may be an early symptom of congestive heart failure.

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Time with your dog is precious. Take care of their heart health. Young woman is making heart shape with her dog by Shutterstock.

The above are also symptoms of heartworm in dogs, which itself can lead to congestive heart failure -- like congestive heart failure itself, heartworm symptoms do not manifest until the havoc they wreak is well advanced. Further advanced symptoms of congestive heart failure in dogs include loss of appetite, weight, and energy levels.

As fresh blood continues to be scarce, excessive panting, especially when it's not particularly hot, might indicate respiratory problems brought on by congestive heart failure. Pooling blood in the abdomen will make the dog's belly feel harder and less pliable to the touch.

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This Shar-Pei has a healthy heart and has no trouble sleeping. Valentine sharpei dog with heart by Shutterstock.

Treating congestive heart failure in dogs

There are a number of treatment options for congestive heart failure in dogs. If the disorder is identified and diagnosed early enough, these treatments involve a number of prescription medications and a guarantee that you and your dog will make regular veterinary appointments for the rest of his or her life. Medications, combined with low-sodium diets and reduced exercise, have become standard practice for managing congestive heart failure in dogs.

Prevent congestive heart failure, if you can

Preventative measures should start early, particularly for at-risk dog breeds. For all dogs, a portion-controlled diet and regular exercise are key to preventing early development of an enlarged heart. Of course, as we've noted, dogs on either extreme of the size spectrum might be genetically predisposed to either dilated cardiomyopathy or mitral insufficiency.

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Your veterinarian will work with you to design a diet and exercise routine to help your dog avoid or manage congestive heart failure. Young woman veterinarian is listening dachshund dog in hospital by Shutterstock.

Consult with your veterinarian early to find out how to decrease your dog's chances of developing later-life heart problems.

Have you ever had a dog who suffered from issues related to congestive heart failure? Share your stories in the comments!

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