Best Ways to Care For a Dog with Congestive Heart Failure

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This article was updated on August 9th, 2023

As an experienced veterinarian & surgeon, I often encounter heart disease in dogs. Over time, dogs with heart disease can develop what we call congestive heart failure; a condition where the heart becomes less efficient at pumping blood around the body. This common heart disease can be concerning for both our canine companion and their devoted owners, and so caring for them becomes a top priority. 

Fortunately, there is an array of treatment options available for your beloved pet, ranging from home remedies to specialized prescription medications. Rest assured, regardless of what stage of disease your dog has, there are plenty of options for keeping them comfortable.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll delve into the causes of congestive heart failure in dogs – from breed predispositions to heart valve problems – and explore ways you can help your dog from the comfort of their home.

Ways to care at home for a dog with congestive heart failure [veterinarian’s advice]

Whether you dog has just been diagnosed with a heart murmur, or if they’ve been suffering with congestive heart failure for some time, this article aims not just to inform but empower you as an owner – helping you make informed decisions about your dog’s health while navigating through treatment options available.

How to help your dog with congestive heart failure

 suffering from congestive failure

There are a range of options available for your dog if they are suffering from congestive failure, some of which require a trip tot he vet and others you can implement from the comfort of your own home. 

  • Medication  – The primary aim of medication to improve your pet’s quality of life by reducing symptoms like pulmonary edema (fluid accumulation) and enhancing their cardiovascular system function. Different types of medications target different areas within your dog’s heart. ACE inhibitors, for instance, work on widening blood vessels making it easier for the heart muscle to pump blood while diuretics help reduce fluid buildup in lungs and other tissues. Beta-blockers are also used frequently; they slow down a dog’s rapid heartbeat allowing more time for the heart chambers to fill up before each beat which aids in better circulation throughout its body. Other drugs like Digoxin strengthen weak muscle contractions that occur due to conditions like atrial fibrillation.
  • Exercise Changes – If your dog has been diagnosed with congestive heart failure, it’s crucial to understand the importance of exercise for maintaining their cardiovascular health. However, balance is key here as overworking your dog could exacerbate their heart condition. Regular gentle exercise can help strengthen the heart muscle and improve blood circulation throughout the body. It also helps keep your dog in shape, which reduces strain on their cardiovascular system. But you must be cautious not to push them too hard since dogs with heart disease may have difficulty breathing during strenuous physical activity. 
  • Supplements – Supplements such as vitamins B and E have shown promise in supporting cardiovascular system function in dogs with congestive heart failure. Taurine is another option, this is an amino acid that plays a crucial role in maintaining optimal heart muscle function. Deficiencies in taurine have been associated with dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in some breeds, so supplementation can offer benefits in such cases. Omega 3 fatty acids are known to promote heart health in both humans and dogs by reducing inflammation. However these supplements should never be used as a substitute for veterinary care – always consult with your vet before starting any new supplement regimen for your dog. 
  • Low salt diet – a low salt diet help reduce fluid retention within your dog’s body, therefore helping them to clear any excess fluid that may have accumulated in their lungs or abdomen. Reduced salt intake also helps control blood pressure; high levels of sodium can contribute to high blood pressure, which can further strain a dog’s already weakened heart.
  • Pacemakers – A pacemaker is a valuable aid for dogs with specific types of heart disease, including congestive heart failure. It’s a device that is surgically implanted and sends electrical impulses to help the heart maintain a regular heart rhythm. In dogs with heart disease, the heartbeat can often be abnormally slow or irregular – a pacemaker can correct these issues. This can help to prevent further damage to the heart caused by overexertion and improve a dog’s quality of life by reducing symptoms like fatigue, weakness, and difficulty breathing. Thats not all, studies have shown that a pacemaker can extend a dog’s lifespan, especially when implanted early in the progression of heart disease. 

Leading causes of congestive heart failure

As a dog owner, it’s helpful to know the leading causes of congenital heart failure – to help you understand how to best help your dog at home.

1. Degenerative Valve Disease

Degenerative Valve Disease In Dog

Degenerative valve disease is a prevalent heart condition that can lead to the development of congestive heart failure in dogs. This condition occurs when the dog’s heart valves deteriorate over time, causing them to leak. This leakage causes blood to flow in the wrong direction within the heart, forcing the heart muscles to work that bit harder than normal. Overtime, this puts strain on the heart, resulting in it not working as efficiently as it once did, eventually leading to fluid building up within certain areas of the body, such as the lungs and abdomen. This ‘congestion’ is where the condition gets it’s name.

To make matters worse, the symptoms of degenerative valve disease might not be immediately noticeable as they often develop over time. This includes difficulty breathing, reduced activity level or lethargy, coughing (especially at night), rapid weight loss or gain due to fluid accumulation (pulmonary edema), fainting spells, and irregularities with your pet’s heartbeat.

Unfortunately heart disease isn’t something that will go away on it’s own; once a valve starts leaking it often only gets worse with time. However, this doesn’t mean that there’s nothing your can do to help your dog – medication can extend your dog’s lifespan and there are plenty of changes that you can implement at home to help. 

Breed Predisposition

Genetics can play a role in the development of congestive heart failure; certain breeds are more predisposed than others including Cavalier King Charles Spaniels and Dachshunds, who often develop degenerative valve disease as they grow older. Larger breeds like Doberman Pinschers and Great Danes are prone to another heart condition called dilated cardiomyopathy, which can also lead to CHF.

If you own one of these breeds then regular checkups are essential, especially if a heart murmur has been detected already. See your vet at the first sign of breathing issues, coughing or weakness.

2. Congenital Defects

Congenital defects can predispose a dog to develop congestive heart failure, two of which are Ventricular Septal Defect (VSD) and Patent Ductus Arteriosus (PDA). These are conditions that your dog is born with due to a mistake that occurred during your dog’s development. Understanding these conditions can help you better care for your pet’s heart health.

  • Ventricular Septal Defect (VSD) – one of the most common congenital heart diseases in dogs, a VSD involves an opening in the septum that separates the left and right ventricles of a dog’s heart. This allows blood to flow in the wrong direction, leading to an increase in pressure. If left untreated, this can eventually progress to congestive heart failure.
  • Patent Ductus Arteriosus (PDA) – another common congenital defect found mainly in smaller breeds, PDA happens when there’s an abnormal connection between two major arteries near a dog’s heart: the pulmonary artery and the aorta. The duct usually closes after birth but remains open or ‘patent’ in some cases, leading to this condition. Blood gets shunted away from where it should go – the lungs – thus making other parts like the left atrium work harder, eventually leading to congestive heart failure.

To manage these conditions effectively, early detection is key. Surgery may be possible in some cases, otherwise the condition can be managed with medication where possible.

3. Grain-free Diets

There has been increasing concern about the potential link between grain-free diets and congestive heart failure in dogs. One significant worry is that certain grain-free diets may increase the likelihood of dogs developing dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). This condition leads to thickening of the heart muscles, resulting in symptoms such as difficulty breathing, an irregular heartbeat and pulmonary edema. Several studies have suggested that certain breeds are more prone to DCM due to genetic factors. However, recent findings indicate an alarming increase in cases among smaller breeds not typically predisposed to this common heart disease. Many experts believe that diet plays a significant role – specifically grain-free diets high in legumes like peas or lentils.

These foods lack essential nutrients necessary for optimal cardiovascular system function such as taurine – an amino acid critical for maintaining your dog’s heart health. A deficiency can lead to enlarged left atrium or ventricles and can therefore go on to cause congestive heart failure.

4. Heartworm

A common heart condition that can lead to congestive heart failure in dogs is heartworm. This serious condition occurs when a dog’s cardiovascular system becomes infested with parasitic worms, which can cause significant damage to the heart muscle and valves over time.

While there are cardiac medications available for treating this condition once diagnosed via chest x-rays or echocardiograms; prevention remains key! Regular administration of prescribed preventive medication can keep our furry friends safe from contracting this deadly parasite while maintaining good overall health. 

What if your dog is showing signs of illness?

dog is showing signs of illness

Difficulty breathing is one of the most common symptoms seen in dogs with congestive heart failure. This happens because of accumulation of fluid around the lungs, a condition known as pulmonary edema. Dogs may also cough excessively, show fatigue after moderate activity, have weight loss or gain (due to water retention), have an increased resting respiratory rate, and even exhibit fainting episodes.

If you suspect that your dog has any form of cardiac issue you should seek veterinary advice immediately. The prognosis depends on many factors, but early detection often leads to a better outcome.

How long do dogs with congestive heart failure live?

The prognosis for congestive heart failure varies greatly depending on several factors such as age, breed (smaller breeds often fare better), overall health status and how advanced the disease is at diagnosis. 

On average, dogs with congestive heart failure live 6-18 months after diagnosis when they are properly treated, with the median life expectancy being about 10 months according to studies. Although some dogs can live for several years. Dogs with mild cases may live longer, while those with severe heart failure may have a significantly shorter lifespan.

Collaborating closely with a veterinarian is vital to effectively manage your dog’s condition and enhance their overall quality of life. Remember that while congestive heart failure is serious, many dogs can still lead happy, fulfilling lives with the right care and treatment. Learn more with our article about life expectancy for dogs with congestive heart failure.

Treatment Options for Congestive Heart Failure in Dogs

The first line of defence against canine congestive heart failure typically involves cardiac medications. These drugs work by helping the heart muscle pump more efficiently and reducing fluid build-up (pulmonary edema) in the lungs which causes difficulty breathing. Commonly prescribed medications include ACE inhibitors and diuretics.

In some cases where there’s an underlying cause such as a defect in the tricuspid valve or one of the congenital issues mentioned above, surgical intervention may be recommended, but this is a very specialist procedure. 

Dietary Changes & Supplements

A crucial part of managing this disease is dietary modification. A low-salt diet helps prevent further water retention and strain on the cardiovascular system while adding essential fatty acids from fish oil into their meals can support overall cardiac health.

Natural supplements are also gaining popularity among pet owners seeking complementary therapies to conventional treatment methods. Some natural remedies believed to benefit dogs with common heart diseases include hawthorn berries known for strengthening the cardiovascular system and coenzyme Q10 thought to enhance energy production within cells including those in the heart muscles. Always consult with your vet before starting any new supplement regimen though!

Regular Check-ups & Diagnostic Tests

Routine check-ups play an essential role in monitoring progress and adjusting therapy plans accordingly. Chest x-rays and echocardiogram scans are often performed to investigate any changes present within the heart.

Remember, each individual case varies. Therefore, regular follow-ups become vital, ensuring a healthier outcome for our four-legged friends. 

When to Euthanize a Dog with Congestive Heart Failure

When it comes to congestive heart failure (CHF), the euthanasia decision is complex due to the progressive nature of the disease and the impact on our dogs’ quality of life. Read my article here on Senior Tail Waggers: When to Euthanize a Dog with Congestive Heart Failure.

FAQs

Is my dog in pain? Dogs with congestive heart failure often exhibit various symptoms, but these are primarily associated with discomfort rather than direct pain. Difficulty breathing can be distressing for your furry friend; If they show other symptoms like lethargy or loss of appetite, it’s time to visit the vet.

Can congestive heart failure in dogs be cured? Unfortunately, a cure is not currently available. But don’t worry, there are treatment options available to manage and alleviate symptoms effectively. Medication can help the heart pump blood through their system and prevent fluid build-up around the heart and lungs. 

What should you do if your dog gets distressed during exercise? If they start coughing excessively or seem overly fatigued during exercise, stop immediately and consult with your veterinarian. Your pup’s ability to handle physical activity depends on how well their cardiovascular system pumps blood effectively.

Can congestive heart failure in dogs affect their emotional well-being? Just like humans, animals can experience emotional responses to health challenges. It’s conceivable that your canine may become more on edge or discouraged as they attempt to adapt to this condition. Regular check-ups and appropriate treatment plans can help manage these issues effectively.

Author

  • Dr Alex Crow, Veterinary Surgeon

    Alex Crow, VetMed MRCVS, is an RCVS accredited Veterinary surgeon with special interests in neurology and soft tissue surgery. Dr Crow is currently practicing at Buttercross Veterinary Center in England. He earned his degree in veterinary medicine in 2019 from the Royal Veterinary College (one of the top 3 vet schools in the world) and has more than three years of experience practicing as a small animal veterinarian (dogs and cats).

Disclaimer: This website's content is not a substitute for veterinary care. Always consult with your veterinarian for healthcare decisions. Read More.

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