Cornell Feline Health Center

Supporting Cat Health with Information and Health Studies.

Pets Get Heart Disease Too

February is American Heart Month – for your pets too!

Dr. Bruce G. Kornreich, Director of the Cornell Feline Health Center and board certified veterinary cardiologist at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, shares some tips about how to spot heart disease in your pets.

Read Dr. Kornreich's bio.

Kornreich says:

“February is American Heart Month, and it is important that every dog and cat owner is empowered to recognize signs of heart disease in their companion animals.

Regular veterinary checkups are a key component in keeping your cat’s heart healthy. The best thing that owners can do is to make sure their cats have thorough medical checkups — at least once a year — during which the veterinarian pays close attention to the heart. While examination with a stethoscope cannot detect all feline heart diseases, it’s probably the most cost-effective approach to diagnosis in otherwise healthy cats."

For cats:

Signs of heart disease in cats include difficulty/rapid breathing, weakness, lethargy, exercise intolerance, and collapsing episodes. Cats very rarely cough as a result of heart disease. The normal resting respiratory rate for cats is between 15 and 30 breaths per minute. Respiratory rates above 35 breaths per minute in either species should prompt consultation with a veterinarian.

The most common heart disease in cats is hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, or HCM. HCM is a primary heart muscle disease that causes thickening of (usually) the walls of the left ventricle and is considered to be ‘acquired’, as they are not present at birth.

The cause of feline HCM is unknown, but it has been shown to be more prevalent in some cat breeds, including the Maine Coon, Ragdoll, British Shorthair, Persian, and Sphinx.

Cats with clinically significant structural heart disease, as opposed to electrical problems that can cause arrhythmia, have heart murmurs – the sound caused by turbulent blood flow that can be heard using a stethoscope. Approximately 20% of cats that have heart murmurs do not have heart disease.

For dogs:

Signs of heart disease in dogs include difficulty/rapid breathing, cough, weakness, lethargy, exercise intolerance, and collapsing episodes. The normal resting respiratory rate for dogs is between 15 and 30 breaths per minute. Respiratory rates above 35 breaths per minute in either species should prompt consultation with a veterinarian.

The most common heart disease in dogs is age-associated degeneration of the mitral valve, called myxomatous degeneration, or MMVD. It is considered to be ‘acquired’, as they are not present at birth.

The cause of MMVD in dogs is also unknown, but it is very common in small breed dogs, particularly as they age. The King Charles Cavalier Spaniel has been shown to be at particularly high risk for this condition.

Puppies can have low grade heart murmurs – the sound caused by turbulent blood flow that can be heard using a stethoscope – called ‘flow’ or ‘physiologic’ murmurs are not associated with heart disease. These usually disappear by 8-12 weeks of age.

Genetic testing:

Heart defects that are present at birth are referred to as congenital and can be passed from one generation to the next.

Genetic screening for the purpose of diagnosing and/or preventing the inheritance of heritable heart defects is available for a number of veterinary heart diseases, including HCM in cats and several heart muscle diseases in dogs.

None of these tests is perfectly predictive, however, and the interpretation of the results of these tests requires careful consultation with a veterinarian.