Can cats develop heart disease?
While cats can develop heart disease, it isn’t seen as often as in dogs or people. Continue reading to learn more about possible causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment of heart disease in cats. We’ll also discuss what you can do to prevent heart disease in your cat, what to expect regarding continued care, and when to call the vet
This article was written by a FirstVet vet
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What causes heart disease in cats?
Heart disease in cats occurs in two forms: Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM) and Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM). Thanks to nutritional requirements in commercial cat food requiring the amino acid Taurine, DCM is rare. HCM is more commonly diagnosed especially in purebred cats ranging from 6 months old to senior age cats.
Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy is the most common heart disease seen in cats. It occurs when the heart muscle increases in size and becomes thicker. This makes it difficult for the heart to work or pump normally.
Genetic origin is suspected, which explains why it’s so widespread and challenging to cure or eliminate. Other causes of HCM include hyperthyroid disease and high blood pressure (hypertension). If found early, these can be treated, often reversing the effects on the heart.
Dilated Cardiomyopathy occurs when the heart has a decreased ability to pump or contract due to weak heart muscle tissue. Causes of DCM include diets lacking the essential amino acid, taurine, end-stage HCM, and most often, genetic origin.
A genetic predisposition to DCM is suspected especially in Persian, domestic short hair and long hair, Abyssinian, Birman, Burmese, and Siamese cats. Less commonly DCM can be caused by an infection or toxin. Cats diagnosed with DCM need lifelong veterinary care as it is often irreversible.
Click on the following link for information about choosing the right food for your cat: How to Choose the Right Food for Your Cat
How can I tell if my cat has heart disease?
While there aren’t specific signs that point to HCM or DCM in cats, you should always be on alert for general signs of illness requiring veterinary care, including:
- Decreased appetite
- Changes in behavior such as decreased activity, hiding more than usual, sleeping in a new spot
- Any other symptoms that seem out of the ordinary for your cat
The following signs, often associated with HCM, require immediate emergency veterinary care:
- Difficulty breathing (panting)
- Rapid breathing
- Suddenly painful and unable to use front leg(s) or back leg(s)
How Your Veterinarian Diagnoses Heart Disease
Your cat’s symptoms as well as the physical exam findings may suggest heart disease as well as several other diseases of the heart, lungs, or bloodstream. The following tests are important tools used to determine the cause of the symptoms so that appropriate treatment can begin.
- Thorough History and Physical Exam Findings where your vet may hear abnormal heart sounds such as a heart murmur or arrhythmia.
- Chest X-rays (Radiographs) and Echocardiogram (Heart Ultrasound) help determine if the heart is enlarged and evaluate the thickness of the heart muscle. Allow your vet to look for fluid in the lungs/chest and changes in the liver.
- Genetic Screening Blood Test: Cats who test positive with this test for HCM may or may not have signs of heart disease. This test determines if a cat has the potential for passing on HCM to offspring.
- Blood Tests and Urinalysis including a complete blood count (CBC), blood chemistry profile, thyroid hormone test, and blood biomarker test (NT-proBNP), Taurine concentration
- Blood Pressure and Electrocardiogram (ECG): Cats often have elevated blood pressure which needs to be treated as it can lead to blindness as well as kidney damage and changes in the brain.
Treatment Options for Cats with Heart Disease
Happily, some cats found to have HCM without symptoms often don’t require medication or treatment. They should, however, be watched closely and have regular monitoring by a vet.
Cats diagnosed early with DCM often respond well to treatment and have a good quality of life. In more serious cases, DCM can cause death within a few days or weeks.
If your cat has been diagnosed with HCM or DCM and has associated symptoms, then medication is needed to survive. Your cat will likely need these medications for the rest of his/her life. Treatment is focused on relieving symptoms such as difficulty breathing, high blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythm, and elevated heart rate.
Always give medication exactly as directed by your vet, and don’t stop the medication without talking to your vet first. Your veterinary care team can teach you how to take a resting respiratory rate (RRR) in your cat and help you determine when you need to call your vet.
Exercise needs to be closely monitored to make sure your cat rests frequently. Diet changes may be necessary to treat taurine deficiency. An appetite stimulant can be given if needed.
Close monitoring is important so that your cat’s medication can be adjusted as needed. Follow-up visits depend on many different factors including your cat’s symptoms, response to medication, side effects of medications, co-existing diseases, quality of life, and more. Your vet can discuss when to schedule follow-up visits, what tests to expect, and how often.
Cats with HCM or DCM who are experiencing life-threatening symptoms need to be hospitalized in intensive care, supported with oxygen, and given injections of medications to treat their symptoms. In these cases, it’s difficult to know how the patient will respond to treatment. If your cat doesn’t improve in the first 48-72 hours after beginning treatment it may be time to speak with your vet about your cat’s prognosis and quality of life.
Preventing Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy and Dilated Cardiomyopathy in Cats
- Ask your vet to perform genetic screening tests for Main Coon cats and Ragdolls.
- Breeders should have all breeding cats screened with an echocardiogram.
- Feed your cat a nutritionally complete diet that includes the essential amino acid, taurine.
- Senior cats should be screened or tested for hyperthyroid disease. Read more about this disease by clicking on the following link: Hyperthyroidism in Cats
When to Contact a Veterinarian
The following signs often associated with HCM or DCM require immediate emergency veterinary care:
- Difficulty breathing (panting)
- Rapid breathing
- Suddenly unable to use front leg(s) or back leg(s)
If your cat shows any other signs or symptoms such as coughing, vomiting, diarrhea, weight loss, decreased appetite, or more, then you should contact your vet and schedule an appointment for your cat.
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