If a furry family member is ill, it can be devastating for their pet parents, especially when grappling with a significant issue like congestive heart failure (CHF). You likely have many questions, especially regarding treatment options and what the future holds for your pup. As a vet, I’ve encountered numerous dogs in congestive heart failure. This is a complex medical condition that can hugely impact life expectancy and quality of life, even with aggressive treatment. Here’s what pet parents should know about life after a diagnosis of CHF.
What is Congestive Heart Failure?
Congestive heart failure (CHF) in dogs is a progressive condition that results from heart disease and impairs the heart’s ability to pump blood effectively. This results in a failure to deliver essential oxygen and nutrients to the cells (heart failure), plus a buildup of fluid in various parts of the body (hence the term congestive). CHF is classified into two main types, depending on which part of the heart is diseased or affected:
- Left-sided CHF: The most common type in dogs, left-sided CHF occurs when the left side of the heart cannot pump blood to the body efficiently, leading to fluid accumulation in the lungs. This results in symptoms like coughing and difficulty breathing.
- Right-sided CHF: In right-sided CHF, the right side of the heart struggles to pump blood to the lungs for oxygenation, causing a buildup of fluid in the abdomen, legs, or other parts of the body, often resulting in visible swelling.
The underlying causes of CHF in dogs are many and variable. It could be due to inherited congenital heart defects, degenerative valve disease, heartworm disease, and more. The two most common causes of CHF in dogs are discussed below. It is important to note that not all dogs with heart disease are in congestive heart failure. In early or mild cases of heart disease, a dog’s body can make up for a heart that doesn’t work well. However, as the disease gets worse, heart failure and the clinical signs of CHF may appear.
- Degenerative Mitral Valve Disease (DMVD): DMVD is the most common acquired heart disease in dogs. Over time, the mitral valve degenerates and leaks, causing blood to flow backward and leading to increased pressure and fluid build-up in the lungs. This condition is most prevalent in older, small to medium-sized dogs and certain breeds.
- Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM): This disease causes an enlargement of the heart, especially impacting the heart’s muscular ventricles. The enlarged, weakened heart struggles to pump blood effectively, resulting in various circulatory problems and, over time, heart failure. DCM often affects large-breed dogs.
Impact of CHF on a Dog’s Life Expectancy
The life expectancy for dogs with CHF varies significantly and can range from several months to a few years, depending on factors like the underlying cause, the presence of concurrent disease, your dog’s age, and the stage of the disease. Owner compliance and finances are also contributing factors. Beyond just lifespan, it is important for pet parents to consider their dog’s quality of life, as the symptoms of CHF can be severe and debilitating. Dogs with congestive heart failure require emergent medical treatment, without which they will die. Humane euthanasia is strongly recommended if owners do not wish to aggressively treat heart failure.
- Average life expectancy – The average life expectancy for dogs in congestive heart failure (and receiving veterinary treatment) is 6-9 months. Some dogs can live for several years, but this is not the norm.
- CHF associated with degenerative mitral valve disease – The average survival time of dogs is 9 months (from the time of diagnosis and start of treatment). The longest-surviving patients in this group lived for over 3 years. However, in general, only 20 percent of dogs live for 18 to 24 months.
- CHF associated with dilated cardiomyopathy – Survival times generally range from 6-12 months.
Treatment Options and Their Effect on Life Expectancy
The main goal of treatment for CHF is to improve the dog’s quality of life by managing symptoms and slowing the progression of the disease. This is generally achieved through a combination of medications and lifestyle changes.
- Hospitalization: Many dogs will require hospitalization for intensive treatment at the time that CHF is diagnosed.
- Medications: A range of medications are used to manage CHF, including diuretics to reduce fluid build-up, ACE inhibitors to decrease blood pressure and volume, and drugs like pimobendan that improve the heart’s ability to contract. The combination of medications used will depend on the underlying cause of heart failure and the dog’s response to treatment. The stage of disease when medication is started can also have a big impact on life expectancy.
- Dietary modifications: Low-sodium diets are often recommended to prevent fluid accumulation. Ask your vet if they recommend a specific diet for your pup.
- Exercise: While strenuous activity is generally avoided in dogs with CHF, gentle exercise can be beneficial for maintaining muscle tone and promoting overall well-being. The appropriate level of exercise should be discussed with the veterinarian.
- Surgery: In some cases, for example if there is a structural defect that can be repaired, surgery with a cardiologist may be an option.
- Regular Check-ups: Regular veterinary check-ups are crucial for monitoring the progression of the disease and adjusting the treatment plan as necessary.
Managing a Dog’s Life with CHF
Despite a CHF diagnosis, many dogs can still live a comfortable life with the right management. Regular veterinary check-ups, a dedicated pet parent following a vet-prescribed treatment plan, heart-healthy diets, and controlled exercise regimens can significantly contribute to a dog’s well-being. Managing a dog with CHF can be challenging, but understanding the condition, adhering to the prescribed treatments, and making necessary lifestyle adjustments can significantly improve a dog’s life expectancy and quality of life.
End of Life Care
As CHF is a progressive condition with no cure, at some point your furry family member may stop responding to medications, and clinical signs will return or worsen. This may include symptoms such as difficulty breathing even while resting, frequent coughing, glue/grey gum color, collapse, weakness, and reluctance to eat, drink, and walk. It is important to have a candid discussion with your vet about how to monitor their quality of life and when to consider humane euthanasia.
Symptoms of Congestive Heart Failure
The symptoms of CHF depend on its type and severity. They can include:
- Exercise intolerance
- Reduced appetite
- Rapid or labored breathing
- Blue or grey gum color
- Persistent coughing
- Swollen abdomen
- Weight loss
- Fainting spells (syncope)
- Heart murmur (abnormal heart sound), arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat), or crackling in the lungs may be heard when listening to the chest with a stethoscope
- Sudden death
Veterinary examinations play a pivotal role in diagnosing CHF, utilizing tools like X-rays, echocardiograms, and blood tests to evaluate heart function and determine the severity of the condition. The disease is typically classified into different stages (ranging from dogs who are simply at risk of developing heart disease to dogs with congestive heart failure no longer responding to treatment). While CHF is a serious and life-threatening condition, early detection and appropriate treatment can help manage the symptoms and slow the progression of the disease, improving the quality of life for affected dogs.