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Your Pet’s Heart: A Guide to Understanding Heart Health in Dogs and Cats

Heart dog

Have you ever considered what an important function the heart serves? The heart beats continuously to move blood throughout the body, every day, all day for the entirety of your pet’s life. This article is a brief overview of the anatomy and function of the heart as well as suggestions to help keep your pet’s heart as healthy as possible.

Anatomy of the Heart

The heart is composed of cardiac muscle. This special type of muscle is only found in the heart (the other types of muscle are skeletal and smooth). The heart is divided into four blood-filled areas known as chambers. The two upper chambers are known as atria and the two lower chambers are known as ventricles. Two chambers are present on each side of the heart – one atrium and one ventricle.

Each atrium and ventricle are separated by a valve. A healthy heart valve allows blood to flow from the atrium to the ventricle in one direction only. The left and right sides of the heart are separated by a thick wall of muscle called a septum. The heart, along with blood and blood vessels (arteries, veins, capillaries) makes up the circulatory system.

Great vessels

A discussion about the heart would not be complete without including the great vessels. The great vessels are large blood vessels that move blood in and out of the heart. They are as follows:

  • Aorta - transports blood carrying oxygen from the left side of the heart to the body
  • Vena Cava - returns unoxygenated blood from the body to the right side of the heart
  • Pulmonary Artery - moves unoxygenated blood from the right side of the heart to the lungs where they will pick up oxygen
  • Pulmonary Vein - carries newly oxygen-rich blood from the lungs to the left side of the heart

Function of the Heart

The most simple way to think about the job of the heart is to think of it as a pump that moves blood to all the cells of the body. Cardiac muscle contracts (squeezes) and relaxes leading to the movement of blood through the heart. As blood travels through the body, it picks up important nutrients and oxygen and delivers them to the tissues of the body while removing waste (carbon dioxide).

Blood moves through the heart in a coordinated way and along a very specific path. The right side of the heart (atrium and ventricle) receives unoxygenated blood from the body and pumps it to the lungs. While in the lungs, the blood releases waste (carbon dioxide) and picks up oxygen from the air our pet has inhaled. The left side of the heart receives oxygen-rich blood from the lungs and sends it to every cell in the body where oxygen is released. This movement of blood allows each organ to perform its function properly.

Keeping Your Pet’s Heart Healthy

Although dogs and cats typically don’t have heart attacks or clogged arteries, they can suffer from a variety of heart diseases.

Weight Management

Keep pets thin. Carrying additional bodyweight places increased strain on every organ in the body, including the heart and lungs. Studies have shown that overweight pets tend to live shorter lives.

If you’re concerned your pet may be overweight, check out our articles on dog and cat obesity!


Feeding a commercial pet food is important in keeping your pet’s heart healthy. Commercial diets contain proper amounts of essential ingredients that are necessary for proper heart function. A veterinary nutritionist should always be consulted before feeding a home-cooked diet to your pet.

For more information on nutrition, click on the following links:

How to Choose the Right Food for Your Cat

How to Choose the Right Food for Your Dog


Consistent exercise helps to keep the heart healthy and prevents weight gain. It’s also a great way to bond with your pet. Remember, when beginning a new exercise program to start slowly and increase over time.

See Your Veterinarian

Pets should be examined by a vet at least once a year. Your vet will be able to evaluate your pet’s heart and may pick up signs of early heart disease.

Do Your Research

Some breeds of cats and dogs are prone to heart disease. Knowing this before you bring a new pet home may help to prevent worry and heartache.

Read more:

Heartworm Disease in Dogs and Cats

Can cats develop heart disease?

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