Heart health: a comparison of pets and human heart disease

Most people are well aware of the common dangers of heart disease in humans, but companion animal heart health is a mystery to many pet parents. Can parallels be drawn between human heart disease and feline and canine heart disease to help understand heart disease better in our pets? How Common Is Heart Disease? People: Heart disease and stroke are two of the three leading causes of death in Canada. Cardiovascular disease accounts for about 29% of all deaths in Canada. Dogs and Cats: Although reliable statistics are not available for adult felines or canines, heart disease is at least 10 percent of dogs develop valvular heart disease, and the risk is higher for dogs over the age of 9. When it comes to cats, tracking heart disease is tricky, since felines often show no symptoms of the disease. What’s the Most Common Form of Heart Disease? People: Coronary artery disease is the most prevalent kind of heart disease found in adults. The main type involves plaque buildup in the arteries that are responsible for bringing blood to the heart. As the layers of plaque grow and harden, less blood flows to the heart. Dogs and Cats: The biggest difference between humans and their pets is that pets are not at risk for coronary artery disease. Mitral valve disease and dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) are the most common canine heart diseases. Mitral valve disease causes a valve on the left side of the heart to get thicker, causing it to not cause properly and as a result, blood backs up into the left atrium instead of exiting the left ventricle. Older, small-breed dogs are more likely to develop mitral valve disease, and the condition is exacerbated by periodontal disease. DCM weakens the heart muscle so that it pumps less strongly and regularly. This condition is more common in large-breed dogs, like Great Danes, and some Spaniel breeds. Cats, on the other hand, are prone to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM). In this disease, the walls of the heart thicken and the muscle becomes less flexible and the heart pumps less blood. HCM is a genetic disease that is found in Maine Coon cats and mixed breed cats. What Are the Symptoms of Heart Disease? People: Symptoms vary depending on the disease, but patients with coronary artery disease often have chest pain, arm pain and shallow breathing. And, of course, there’s the big wakeup call of a heart attack. Dogs and Cats: Dogs typically show signs of low energy, trouble getting comfortable or breathing and a chronic cough, which may be low-pitched. They can also collapse or faint. Cats may also get lethargic, sleeping or hiding more than usual. They can also lose their appetite. If a blood clot is swept from the heart and travels down through the aorta, felines can suffer a painful, sudden paralysis in their hind legs. How is Heart Disease tested? People: Doctors can choose from a variety of diagnostic testing, including blood tests, treadmill tests, electrocardiograms and imaging tests. Dogs and Cats: For veterinarians, a stethoscope is the most effective way to identify heart disease, but it is difficult to detect heart muscle diseases unless there is a murmur. Sometimes an x-ray, ECG or echocardiogram may be necessary. Can a Healthy Diet Help Prevent Heart Disease? People: Diet has a big impact on heart health. Eating foods heavy with saturated and trans fats can raise cholesterol and contribute to plaque buildup in the arteries, while whole grains and fiber can act to lower cholesterol and help prevent heart disease. Dogs and Cats: A healthy diet does not significantly help dogs and cats avoid heart disease, however, there are prescription diets out there for pets with heart disease - talk with your veterinarian. Does Exercise Help Fight Heart Disease? People: Yes, definitely! Exercise lowers the risk of heart attack and reduces stress, another risk factor for heart disease. Dogs and Cats: The kinds of heart disease commonly found in cats and dogs can't be avoided through exercise. But, as with people, regular exercise will improve overall health and help prevent obesity in pets. Dogs help us in this regard because many people get more exercise simply because they walk their dog!

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