Ask the Edmonds Vet: Heart problems in your pet

By Dr. David Gross

Can my dog or cat have a heart attack?
Carnivores, including dogs and cats, handle ingested fats more efficiently than omnivores, including humans and pigs. Omnivores convert excess ingested fats, especially animal origin fats, into cholesterol. Cholesterol is necessary for many physiological functions in the body but excess cholesterol can and does end up as atherosclerotic plaque in blood vessels. Dogs and cats rarely, if ever, accumulate cholesterol in blood vessels and thus do not suffer from atherosclerosis.

Atherosclerotic disease can result in blockage of the blood vessels. When the coronary blood vessels, those supplying the heart, become affected, the result is a heart attack. When the carotid or cerebral arteries are diseased, the result can be a stroke. When blood vessels to the legs are involved, it can result in claudication. These conditions can be induced in pigs by feeding a high cholesterol diet, but dogs and cats fed an equivalent diet do not develop the atherosclerotic plaque.

So the answer is no. Dogs and cats do not suffer heart attacks. HOWEVER, they can and do suffer from a variety of other heart problems. These include a variety of arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat, related conditions, various diseases of the heart valves, both congenital and acquired, and almost all of the same congenital defects seen in humans. A condition called cardiomyopathy, that seems to have a significant congenital component, is being diagnoses with increasing frequency in both dogs and cats. Many diseases can affect the heart secondarily. All of these problems can result in congestive heart failure, but not a heart attack, per se.

If you pet is showing signs of exercise intolerance, “fainting”, shortness of breath, unexplained lassitude, or dizziness you should have your veterinarian conduct a thorough examination to look for a problem involving heart function. It may be necessary to consult a veterinary cardiologist who can conduct specialized testing with ultrasound, electrocardiography and/or catheterization, but your regular veterinarian can determine if this expertise is necessary.

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D. R. Gross graduated from Colorado State University’s veterinary school in 1960 and was in private practice for ten years. He enrolled in graduate school at Ohio State University earning a M.Sc. degree in 1972 and a Ph.D. degree in 1974. He retired in 2006 as Professor and Head of Veterinary Biosciences, at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Dr. Gross is a Fellow of the Cardiovascular Section of the American Physiological Society. During his academic career, he published over 90 papers in refereed scientific journals and over 100 abstracts in proceedings of scientific meetings.

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