Heart failure is exactly what it sounds like. The heart is essentially a pump for blood. It is responsible for ensuring that all vital organs receive sufficient blood flow. When the heart is no longer able to pump enough blood to reach these organs, it is considered to be heart failure.
When your animal has any sort of progressive heart disease, it is in heart failure. But the great thing is that the body is able to compensate for a failing heart for a certain amount of time. It makes up for the heart’s decreased ability to pump blood by doing things such as raising blood pressure and making the heart beat faster.
You may not notice any signs or changes in animals in the beginning stages of heart failure. However, these signs will eventually progress into congestive heart failure. Congestive heart failure is when the body is no longer able to compensate for the failing heart. Dogs are considered to be in congestive heart failure when they show clinical signs.
The clinical signs of congestive heart failure are due to the heart being unable to push blood out of the heart. This causes a back-up of blood, and therefore a back-up of fluid. This fluid most commonly backs up into the lungs. It can also back up into the belly.
When the fluid backs up into the lungs, the dog cannot breathe properly. Imagine trying to breathe with your lungs full of water! This is why one of the first signs of congestive heart failure is what is called ‘exercise intolerance’. Exercise intolerance happens when a dog cannot exercise for long because it cannot breathe properly. This is because the fluid in its lungs prevents the dog from getting enough oxygen. Another common sign is a cough. Congestive heart failure can cause a dog to attempt to cough up fluid. But keep in mind that there are many medical problems that can cause a dog to cough.
This is why one of the first things that your veterinarian will do is take X-rays of the chest. X-rays will show fluid build-up in the lungs. Once your veterinarian sees this, and determines that your dog is in congestive heart failure, you can discuss your options with your vet. There is no solution to congestive heart failure; your dog will eventually succumb to the clinical signs. However, there are some drugs that you can give your dog to make it more comfortable and to slow the progression of the disease.
One of the most common drugs is called a ‘diuretic’. There are different types of diuretics, the most common one being furosemide. Diuretics are used to draw the fluid out of your dog’s lungs to help it breath better. Other heart drugs can do various things to the heart and body. They can change blood pressure, heart rate, and help the heart to beat stronger. Different drugs are used depending on the specific problem your dog has. Heart drugs need to be carefully monitored, but can help your dog live a little bit longer and be a lot happier.
Congestive heart failure is the end-point for different types of heart disease. Your dog can go a long time with heart disease and show no problems, but once it develops congestive heart failure, you will begin to see signs. These signs are due to fluid back-up into the lungs and/or belly. Work with your veterinarian to decide if you want to start heart medication and the possibility of eventually making that difficult decision of euthanasia. Being prepared will help you get through these tough times and tough decisions.