Canine Congestive Heart Failure:
Symptoms and Treatment

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Canine congestive heart failure is most likely to occur in an overweight dog. 

Snapshot: Canine Congestive Heart Failure
Here's a quick overview if you're in a hurry. Come back later when you have time to read the complete guide.

  • Symptoms: Tires easily, coughing during or after exercise, difficulty sleeping, rapid breathing, weight loss, fainting, lack of appetite.
  • Diagnosis: A diagnosis of canine heart disease can be made by listening to the heart, blood test to rule out heartworm, radiographs of the chest (may reveal an enlarged heart and fluid in the lungs), electrocardiograph (to determine heart beat strength and regularity) and echocardiogram (to evaluate heart size and beat)
  • Treatment: A low-salt prescription diet is generally advised, along with one of the same medications used by human heart patients.

Definition of Canine Congestive Heart Failure

Congestive heart failure means the heart is no longer pumping an adequate supply of blood to the lungs or other parts of the body. This heart failure affects the liver, kidneys, lungs and other organs. A sick heart can function without any indication of disease for months or even years. This is why canine congestive heart failure may appear to come on suddenly after strenuous exercise, when the disease has actually existed for months or years.

Symptoms of Canine Congestive Heart Failure

Early symptoms sometimes go without notice and may include one or more of the following:

  • Easily becomes tired
  • Occasional coughing that occurs during or after exercise or excitement
  • Restless pacing before the dog finally settles down to sleep
  • Coughing that occurs a few hours after going to bed

Advanced symptoms include:

  • Rapid breathing
  • Weight loss
  • Swollen abdomen
  • Fainting
  • Refusal to eat

The malfunctioning of the heart causes blood to back up in the dog's organs and legs. This creates increased pressure in the veins, causing fluid to ooze into the lungs, which makes the dog cough. If a dog coughs up a red fluid, known as pulmonary edema, this indicates fluid has accumulated in the airways. Fluid may also accumulate in the abdomen and legs.

Diagnosing Canine Congestive Heart Failure

An accurate diagnosis can be made through:

  • Listening to the heart
  • Blood test to rule out heartworm
  • Radiographs of the chest (may reveal an enlarged heart and fluid in the lungs)
  • Electrocardiograph (to determine heart beat strength and regularity)
  • Echocardiogram (to evaluate heart size and beat)

Dogs at Risk

Heart disease is most often seen in the extremes of the dog world: In elderly small breeds and adult large breed dogs like the Great Dane and Doberman Pinscher. Overweight dogs of any size are also at risk for the disease.

Conventional Treatment

The amount of water in the blood vessels and tissues is a result of the amount of sodium consumed. This is why it is essential to greatly reduce the amount of salt intake for canine congestive heart failure. While prescription diets can be purchased at veterinary clinics, they are not necessary if you are willing to cook your dog's food. "People food" is notorious for high salt content, so do not give it to your dog unless it was cooked in your kitchen and you know for a fact it has no added salt. See the next section for more information on nutrition.

There are a number of medications prescribed for congestive heart failure in dogs, based on the severity and the area of the heart that is damaged. For instance, diuretics can increase the body's urine output. A potassium supplement may be advised in combination with certain diuretics.

Drugs that increase the strength of the heart beat are the same medications used for people: digitalis glycosides, calcium channel blockers, angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors, beta blockers and anti-arrhythmics. Other drugs, diagnosed based on the type of heart malfunction, include ACE inhibitors such as enalapril maleate (Enacard) and benazepril (Fortekor).

Dogs with congestive heart failure may benefit from vitamin-B supplements and taurine or carnitine.

Natural Treatment

When reading dog food labels, be aware that salt-free does not necessarily mean the product has no salt. On the contrary, salt may be "hiding" in other ingredients such as eggs or fish. The National Research Council advises 100 mg per day of sodium. What does that mean to you, the person who selects/prepares food for your dog?

Dr. Roger De Haan, a holistic veterinarian in North Carolina, believes the cause of heart disease is primarily nutritional and the cure is nutritional. If the heart is damaged by the time a diagnosis is made, drugs may also be necessary.

In both prevention of heart disease and living with the disease after diagnosis, Dr. De Haan recommends a high-quality natural dog food with meat as the first ingredient, whole grains and zero corn, soy or dairy, which are all pro-inflammatory. His approach is to look at the whole animal and focus on strengthening the heart. This may include raw heart ingredients, vitamins E and selenium, Co-Q-10, homeopathics specific for the heart and flower essences for the dog's emotional wellbeing.