Congestive heart failure is relatively common in dogs. It’s not a condition itself, but it’s the end result of several types of heart disease your dog can suffer from. Whilst most pet parents discover that their dog has heart disease long before congestive heart failure sets in, some unlucky owners may find that the symptoms of congestive heart failure are the first clue their dog has a problem. So what is congestive heart failure, and can dogs recover from it?
Types of heart disease in dogs
There are two main types of heart disease in dogs – mitral valve disease (sometimes called mitral valve insufficiency), and dilated cardiomyopathy (commonly called ‘DCM’).
Mitral valve disease occurs when one of the one-way valves of the heart starts to fail. Blood goes the wrong way, causing pressure build-up and less effective pumping. Over time, this pressure build-up causes fluid filled lungs, leading to the symptoms of congestive heart failure.
Congestive heart failure can also happen when dogs have DCM, as the heart becomes unable to pump efficiently, causing a back-up of fluid. However, dogs with DCM can also pass away suddenly with no symptoms, so not all cases of DCM cause congestive heart failure signs.
What are the signs of congestive heart failure?
Congestive heart failure causes a build-up of fluid in the lungs or abdomen. This can cause breathlessness, coughing, and other symptoms of congestive heart failure. To read more about the signs, check out our article about the symptoms of heart failure in dogs.
If you spot any of the signs of heart failure it’s essential you get your dog checked by a veterinarian right away.
How will my vet diagnose my dog with heart failure?
If your vet suspects heart failure, they will take a number of steps to diagnose it. Listening with a stethoscope can be very effective for diagnosing mitral valve disease, as dogs develop a heart murmur. Blood tests can measure how much strain the heart is under, and imaging (x-rays and ultrasound) show the changes the heart has undergone, as well as any fluid build-up in the chest.
My dog has congestive heart failure – will he recover?
Heart damage caused by heart disease in dogs is generally non-repairable. However, the build-up of fluid can be reversed, allowing your dog to have a better quality of life. It’s important to note that this improvement is temporary – the heart disease is still there, and eventually, the drugs will stop working.
The good news is that, depending on the severity of the congestive heart failure, many dogs will live for months or even years after a CHF diagnosis. In one study, the average survival time of cases of ‘severe’ heart failure – i.e those with a second episode despite already being on medication – was over 9 months.
What medications will my dog need?
Many different drugs may be used to treat heart failure in dogs. Drugs to help the heart contract, drugs that reduce the cough, and drugs to improve the body’s uptake of fluid may all be used. The exact mix of drugs will depend on your dog’s disease, how ill they are, and how they respond to the drugs. Whilst some of these drugs have a set dosage, others may be adjusted depending on how well your dog responds.
With a lot of heart medications, it’s absolutely critical that you give the drugs as prescribed. Most drugs will be needed once or twice a day, so try to give them as part of a routine so they aren’t forgotten.
If your dog is struggling to take their heart medication, you should talk to your vet. There may be another option such as a flavored tablet or liquid that may help them.
How long can dogs live with heart failure?
While it depends on the type of heart disease causing the heart failure and how quickly medications are started, dogs can live for several months after a heart failure episode. However, it’s essential that medications are given on time, at the right dose, and that regular check-ups are scheduled with your vet so the dose can be adjusted if necessary.
Is heart failure painful for dogs?
It’s unlikely that heart failure is painful for dogs. Unlike heart attacks in humans, heart failure doesn’t involve the death of heart muscle so the associated chest pain doesn’t happen. However, untreated heart failure is likely to be distressing even though it isn’t painful due to the changes in breathing, fluid build-up, and exhaustion.
In dogs, what are the final stages of congestive heart failure?
The end stages of congestive heart failure in dogs are when treatment is no longer working. Stage D heart failure is diagnosed when dogs have symptoms of heart failure despite taking the optimal drugs. Episodes will get more severe and closer together before, eventually, the drugs cannot be increased any further and there is nothing else we can do to help. At this point, it’s generally time to consider euthanasia to prevent suffering.
Congestive heart failure in dogs is the end result of many different heart diseases. It occurs when the pressure changes in the heart and blood vessels cause fluid to be pushed out, making dogs cough and struggle with exercise. Whilst congestive heart failure is extremely serious, with treatment many dogs will go on to live for several months with no symptoms.