February is American Heart Month—not only for people, but for our furry friends, too! Regardless of whether you live in or outside of the USA, take some extra time this month to focus on your furry friend’s heart health and begin to build healthy habits that will benefit them for the rest of their lives.
Heart conditions in cats and dogs can be expensive for pet owners to treat and are often fatal for pets. Although not all heart problems can be prevented, early detection and treatment can help pets live longer, more comfortable lives. Here’s what you should know about your pet’s heart health and how you can improve it, this month and every month thereafter.
Common heart problems in pets
Heart conditions become more common for cats and dogs as they near their senior years, but pets of any age can be susceptible to problems of the heart. The following conditions are the most common in pets:
- Heartworm disease: Heartworms are parasitic worms that infect the heart, lungs and blood vessels. They are usually transmitted by mosquitos and infect the bloodstream, growing and reproducing over time. As adults, heartworms can cause significant damage to the heart and lungs and may even lead to organ failure. Fortunately, heartworm disease is preventable.
- Heart disease: Heart disease looks a little different in dogs and cats than it does in humans. Conditions like coronary heart disease are quite rare in pets. However, pets are susceptible to other forms of heart disease, including the progressive weakening or damaging of the heart’s tissues and congestive heart failure. Older pets are particularly susceptible to this condition.
Heart conditions can be difficult for pet owners to spot, since our pets can’t tell us when they aren’t feeling well. Instead, you’ll want to keep an eye out for these common symptoms:
- Persistent cough
- Difficulty breathing
- Low tolerance for exercise
- Loss of appetite
- Rapid weight loss
- Behavioral or mood changes
- Fainting or collapsing
Preventing and managing heart problems
Not all pet heart conditions can be prevented, but your pet may be able to stand up to heart problems as they age or more easily manage their disease thanks to a few healthy habits:
- Nutritious diet: A healthy body starts with a healthy diet. Feeding your cat or dog nutrient-rich meals is key to helping them maintain heart and total-body health. Choose nutritious pet food that is low in fillers or other unhealthy ingredients to help their bodies get every nutrient they need to stay healthy and perform optimally. Healthy food also helps pets maintain a healthy weight. Obesity is one of the major risk factors for heart disease, since it forces the heart to work harder to pump blood throughout the body. And, if your pet currently suffers from a heart condition, feeding them a low-sodium, nutritious diet will support the heart and help it maintain proper functionality.
- Exercise: Exercise is key for both cats and dogs to build a strong and healthy heart, as well as to maintain it well into their later years. Dogs should be taken on walks or runs daily, while cats should be entertained inside using lasers or other toys that get them up and moving. If your pet is diagnosed with a heart condition, speak with your vet about what forms of exercise are appropriate. Your pet will still need to move to stay healthy, but they may require activity modification to avoid over-stressing the heart.
- Minimize stress: Chronic stress is very bad for pets. Stress can lead to inflammation in the body, which has been linked to damage of the heart and other bodily systems. If your pet suffers from anxiety or a related problem, take steps to minimize the stress they endure daily to help them live an easier and more comfortable life.
- Regular vet examinations: Your pet should be taken to see the vet at least once a year during their early years and twice a year as they reach a senior age. Because early signs of heart problems can be difficult to spot at home, veterinary examinations provide you with the best opportunity to catch heart conditions in cats and dogs as early as possible. In some cases, your vet may help you prevent a heart problem in your pet by guiding their nutrition and exercise requirements from a young age.
Taking care of your pet’s heart requires lifelong attention and dedication. This month, discuss your pet’s heart health with your vet and make a point to implement some heart-healthy habits like extra exercise or a change in diet. Your pet and their heart will thank you!