Ask the Vet: Feline Heart Disease by Kristel Weaver, MPVM, DVM

When cats are sick they hide their illness.  This makes a veterinarian’s job challenging and sick cats may go undetected at home by their owners.  Sometimes the only indication that a cat has a problem is that they are not following their normal routine.   You may have an idea that your cat has a heart problem if your veterinarian hears an abnormal beat or rhythm during a regular physical exam, but sometimes there are no indications that there is a problem until your kitty is really sick.

How do I know if my cat has heart disease at home?
Cats with heart disease can be asymptomatic depending on the severity of their heart problem.  Cats in heart failure (fluid overflowing in or around the lungs) may be lethargic, breath faster than normal or breath with their mouth open.  You may hear crackle noises or coughing, see a bluish color to their footpads, or see them collapse.  A blood clot can become lodged in the aorta causing cats to become paralyzed in their back legs.  These cats are painful, unable to walk and have cold toes.

How is heart disease diagnosed?
Your veterinarian may hear a murmur or abnormal rhythm on physical exam if your cat has heart disease.  Some cats have heart problems with a normal sounding heart and some murmurs are benign.  If your veterinarian suspects advanced heart problems, he or she will likely recommend tests such as x-rays, an echocardiogram (ultrasound of the heart), ECG, check blood pressure, and check their thyroid value.

What causes cats to have heart failure?
Like dogs, cats can have congenital or acquired heart disease.  Congenital problems are usually diagnosed in kittens and are fairly rare.  The most common acquired heart problem in a cat is hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, HCM.  Cats with HCM have thickened heart walls so there less space for blood to fill the chambers of the heart.  Since less blood fills the heart, each pump is less effective at pushing blood to the rest of the body.  We don’t know exactly why cats get HCM but genetics play a role.   HCM can also be secondary to high blood pressure or hyperthyroidism.  There are other forms of heart disease in cats that are less common such as dilated or restrictive cardiomyopathy.
How is a cat in heart failure treated?
An asymptomatic cat with a heart murmur is typically monitored at annual or biannual veterinary visits.  If your cat is having problems breathing they should see a veterinary right away.  Stress makes a cat in heart failure much worse, so sometimes diagnostics are delayed when a cat first arrives at a veterinary hospital to allow them to calm down from the car ride.  Some clinics have quiet oxygen cages, for your cat to relax and breath better.  Once a diagnosis of heart failure has been made, cats may be treated with a procedure to remove fluid from the space around their lungs and given medications to decrease fluid buildup and improve the heart rate and rhythm.  Some cats are put on aspirin to prevent clots and a low sodium diet is recommended.
If your cat seems to be acting off or is breathing harder than normal, bring them in to your veterinarian to be checked out!

Dr. Kristel Weaver is a graduate of the Veterinary School at the University of California, Davis where she received both a DVM and a Master’s of Preventative Veterinary Medicine (MPVM).  She has been at Bishop Ranch Veterinary Center & Urgent Care in San Ramon since 2007.  She currently lives in Oakland with her husband and their two children.

Tags: felines, heart disease, ask the vet

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