Didyou know that any kitty can develop cat heart disease? In cats, you might also besurprised that problems closely mimic those we find in people, from felineheart murmurs to feline congestive heart failure to cardiomyopathy, which is aproblem with the entire heart muscle.
Cats can also have "heart attacks" and leakyvalves and other congenital defects. Cats even develop high blood pressure andcan have strokes. You see, the cat heart is almost identical to our own. It issmaller, of course, to match your cat's small size, but anatomically very muchthe same. The function of the feline heart is the same also. So your cat’sheart is at risk for developing many of the same problems that you are as a petparent.
What are the Types ofHeart Disease in Cats?
Cats usually develop a few different types of heart disease.While they can develop valve problems from age-related scarring, genes, orinfection, this problem is rarer. Similarly, congenital defects are seldom seenin cats. That means your cat is most at risk for developing any one of threetypes of cardiomyopathy and/or to enter feline heart failure.
Also referred to as feline hcm, this condition is by far themost common type of heart disease in cats. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy meansthat the walls of your cat’s heart are severely thickened and your cat’s heartis not able to adequately pump blood. This can also cause a life-threateningspike in your cat’s blood pressure. This condition can affect a cat of any ageor breed. In fact, this is one of the leading causes of death in young cats,especially males.
Dilated Cardiomyopathy in Cats
This form of structural heart disease causes the various chambersof the heart to enlarge or become dilated. When this happens, the heart isagain rendered unable to effectively pump blood. Generally, this condition isseen in certain breeds like Siamese, Burmese or Abyssinians due to it’s geneticcomponent. At one point, dilated cardiomyopathy was the most common form of catheart disease prior to the time that taurine began being added to cat food.Deficiency in taurine puts any cat of any breed at risk for developing dilatedcardiomyopathy, as does poorly controlled hyperthyroidism in cats.
Restrictive Feline Cardiomyopathy
In this condition, the heartmuscle is severely scarred and has become so stiff it cannot expand enough tofill the chambers of the heart with blood. The heart enlarges and cannot pumpproperly. While I have seen it less often in my private practice and it is not considered a very common form of heart disease, cats of anybreed and any age can develop restrictive cardiomyopathy.
Feline Congestive Heart Failure
This condition occurs when theheart can’t deliver enough blood to the body, for any of the above reasons, andfluid builds up in a cat’s lungs and/or other organs as a result. It can befailure from any or all of the heart’s chambers, and indicates that valveproblems, congenital heart defects, feline heartworms, tumors, or one of theforms of cardiomyopathy has increased in severity to the point that it iscausing the heart to completely fail to deliver adequate blood supply.Congestive heart failure in cats is life-threatening and usually ultimately fatal. It canhappen to any breed, at any age, but usually occurs when cats are middle-agedor seniors.
Symptoms of Cat Heart Disease
The signs of heart disease are, unfortunately, difficult to recognizeuntil late in the course of the disease. On some occasions, your vet may detecta feline heart murmur or other abnormal heart rhythm on physical exam. However,in later stages of cat heart disease, the heart can be functioning so poorlythat it can’t even create a detectable murmuror other abnormal rhythm that canbe heard with a stethoscope. This is further reinforcement to bring your catfor regular checkups. Sometimes the window of opportunity is small fordetecting problems quickly and easily.
In terms of other symptoms, often the first sign of heart disease you maysee at home is difficulty breathing, and again, this occurs late in the courseof cat heart disease and can be life-threatening. Other signs of heart diseaseinclude breathing faster than usual, a fast pulse that is hard to feel,lethargy, weakness, and a poor appetite. In rare cases, your pet may evenfaint. When a cat is in feline congestive heart failure, you may noticecoughing or a bloated abdomen as well, resulting from fluid buildup.
Diagnosing Heart Disease in Cats
Because the symptoms of cat heart disease are similar,regardless of the type of heart disease or the cause, the only way to tell thedifference and to properly diagnose your cat is through a variety of tests. Forstarters, a stethoscope is a critical first tool, as it can allow your vet toidentify an abnormal rhythm or a feline heart murmur. Even though it isn’tflawless and won’t catch every case of cat heart disease, a stethoscope is acritical tool that will allow your vet to decide whether you need to take further steps todiagnose whether any abnormalities represent a serious condition.
For a cat that has no abnormal rhythm or murmur, a test called a proBNP test, which is a blood test, can indicate the presence of heart disease in cats with no symptoms. It isbelieved that as many as one in six cats may have heart disease, and not all ofthem will have a red flag that allows for early detection and treatment. Becausecats of any age can have heart disease, testing young can help rule outproblems that might be too early to detect and even can serve as a baseline forfuture years.
If heart problems are suspected, your veterinarian may recommendadditional diagnostics, including other blood tests, measuring your cat’s bloodpressure measurement, running an EKG, and/or doing specialized imaging like chestx-rays and an ultrasound of the heart.Your vet may also refer you to a feline cardiologist.
Treatment and Prognosis of Cat Heart Disease
There are a number of medications that are used to treatheart disease in cats, the choice of which varies depending on which type ofheart disease your cat is suffering with. All of the medications, however, havethe potential to help extend your cat’s life significantly.
Cats are treated with ACE inhibitors, positive ionotrophs,beta blockers, calcium channel blockers, and diuretics, just as humans are!Some common medications are ones you may already be familiar with, likeLisinopril or Benazepril, Digoxin, Propranolol or Atenolol, Diltiazem, orLasix, to name a few. These medications are often used in people, and at theproper dosages for a cat, can provide the same control and improvement ofquality of life. Your veterinarian or feline cardiologist will recommend theproper medications based on your cat’s diagnosis.
Sometimes other “lifestyle changes” are recommended for catswith heart disease, including a diet change to a prescription or other lowsodium diet. Supplements like Co-enzyme Q, taurine and omega fatty acids mayalso help your kitty, and if you’re looking to do all you can, you shoulddiscuss these options with your vet. Just as with humans with heart problems, maintaininga healthy weight can play a critical role in reducing the stress to the heart muscle aswell as the rest of the body, so be sure to encourage mild exercise and feedyour cat a high quality diet to help him lose or maintain a healthy weight!
Additional Resources and Related Conditions
These additional pages can help provide information about heart disease in cats, and the questions and answers at the bottom of this page can help you feel less alone!
- Understanding the Signs of Cat Heart Problems
- Cornell University: Cat Heart Disease (opens in new window)
Related illnesses, symptoms, or causes of heart problems: