Feline Heart Disease
More Common Than You May Think
Share This Story
As many as one in six cats is at risk for heart disease.1 The most common form of feline heart disease is hypertrophic cardiomyopthy,2 a condition that causes the heart walls to thicken, making it difficult for the heart to pump.
How Your Cat’s Heart Functions
The heart is a muscle that pumps blood around the entire body. A cat’s heart normally beats between 120 and 220 times per minute!3
The heart has four chambers: two atria and two ventricles. The artia hold blood returning to the heart and when they fill, they push blood into the ventricles. The ventricles then push that blood back out to the blood vessels in the body. Valves throughout these chambers ensure that blood only flows in one direction.
The heart is made up of two pumps with two different circuits for blood flow: One of these circuits takes blood through the lungs so that oxygen can be replenished and waste gases, like carbon dioxide, can be removed. Then, the oxygen-enriched blood moves through the other, larger circuit, reaching all parts of the body.
Heart disease can affect different parts of the heart. Blood is still pumped, but not effectively. Your pet’s body has the ability to adapt, when the disease first starts, but as it progresses, this adaptive capability is overwhelmed. Muscles and organs in your cat’s body need a constant and consistent blood supply to work properly. A circulation problem will cause muscles to become weak and organs to malfunction. Of the several forms of heart disease in cats, the most common is hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which affects the heart muscle; “cardiomyopathy” is, literally, “heart muscle disease.”
The type of heart disease your cat might get depends on breed, age, and size. Heart disease affects all types of cats, but the following breeds are at greater risk:
Feline heart disease is often called a “silent” disease because cats may not show any signs at all until it’s too late. Cats can have heart disease for many years before showing any symptoms, and often they don’t appear until severe stages of the disease. By detecting heart disease early, the veterinarian can decide on an appropriate monitoring or treatment plan.
It’s easy to confuse the signs of feline heart disease with the signs of aging. Watch for any of the following signs in your pet. Call your veterinarian if your cat:
- Doesn’t want to exercise or play
- Is overly tired or lethargic
- Is breathless or has difficulty breathing
- Collapses or faints
Some signs of heart disease can be detected only by your veterinarian as part of a thorough examination, including:
- Murmur or audible sounds between heartbeats
- Gallop rhythm
- Irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia)
Your veterinarian will perform a complete physical examination and listen to your cat’s heart with a stethoscope. This will provide clues as to whether or not your cat has any heart-related problems and help guide the decision to take next steps. Cardiomyopathy may or may not cause a murmur, so there may be no immediate signs for your veterinarian to identify. If heart disease is suspected, either because your veterinarian hears a murmur or because of something you tell him or her, additional tests to fully evaluate your cat’s heart will typically be recommended. These could include:
- A radiograph, commonly known as an x-ray
- The Cardiopet® proBNP Test, a simple blood test, that measures the cardiac biomarker, NTproBNP—the same marker, used to help diagnose heart disease in humans
- Blood work to assess the state of all the organs
- A blood pressure test
- An ECG (electrocardiograph) to record the electrical action of your cat’s heart
- An echocardiogram (ECHO) to take a look at your pet’s heart structure and function
If your cat is diagnosed with heart disease, your veterinarian may prescribe the following treatment:
- Nutritional modification, such as a low-sodium diet or the addition of supplements
- Diuretics, which help to clear the excess fluid that results from poor circulation
- Drugs that relax blood vessels
- Drugs that help the heart muscle function more effectively
Your veterinarian will prescribe treatment that meets the individual needs of your cat. With the right medication, many cats live longer and more comfortable lives.
It’s important for you to take your cat to the veterinarian regularly so that evidence of heart disease is not overlooked. Unfortunately, there is no cure for heart disease. Unlike heart disease in people, where lack of exercise and poor diet predispose us to heart problems, heart disease in cats will usually develop regardless of lifestyle or diet.
What you can do:
- Take note of changes in your cat as he or she ages
- Watch for changes in your cat’s appetite and activity level
- Maintain your cat’s proper body weight
- Watch for the signs of heart disease
- Know your cat’s breed; some breeds are more likely to develop heart disease
- If your veterinarian hears a murmur, ask about heart disease
- Take your cat for a checkup once a year, and more often as your cat gets older
Regular veterinary visits are very important to the quality of your pet’s life. Having your cat evaluated by your veterinarian at least once a year is the best way to ensure that the often subtle signs of heart disease are not overlooked.
If you have any additional questions, please contact your veterinarian—the key resource for information about the health and well-being of your best friend.
1.Paige CF, Abbott JA, Elvinger F, Pyle RL. Prevalence of cardiomyopathy in apparently healthy cats. JAVMA. 2009;234;(11):1398–1403.
2.Fries R, Heaney HM, Meurs KM. Prevalence of the myosin-binding protein C mutation in Maine Coon cats. J Vet Intern Med. 2008;22(4):893–896.
3.Becker M, Spadafori G. MeowWOW!: Curiously Compelling Facts, True Tales & Trivia Even Your Own Cat Won’t Know. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc.; 2007.