Sometimes a cat is their own worst enemy, especially with regards to heart disease.
The trouble is their naturally laid back attitude makes it difficult to spot the classic signs of heart disease.
After all, in a condition where lack of energy and reluctance to run around are key markers, how is this different from a purfectly healthy cat? The means that heart disease often goes unnoticed (through no fault of the pet parent) until the cat is truly struggling to cope. And heart disease needs to be treated early for the best response.
Cats and Heart Disease
Cats are different to dogs: No surprise there then!
The type of heart disease cats suffer from is different to dogs, which is why for a long time it was thought (incorrectly) that heart disease was rare in our feline friends.
The truth is that cats can and do suffer from heart disease, but it’s often a problem with the muscular wall of the heart, rather than the heart valves. It’s through sophisticated screening such as heart ultrasounds exams that a true understanding came to light in the past 20 years or so.
Heart disease in cats takes the form of:
- Congenital problems: This is the kitten born with a heart defect, such as a hole between one heart chamber and the next.
- Hereditary disease: Some breeds such as the Maine Coon, American Shorthair, or Persian, carry genes that code for heart disease.
- Cardiomyopathy: This is the main cause of heart problems in cats. “Cardio” refers to ‘heart’, whilst “myopathy” is ‘pathology of the muscle’. It takes two forms:
- Dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM): The heart wall becomes baggy and now lacks the tone to pump properly, like a balloon that’s been blown up too many times.
- Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM): The heart wall becomes thickened and the volume of blood the chambers can hold is drastically reduced, meaning each heartbeat is less effective.
- Valve Disease: Sometimes the heart valves thicken or crumble, which allows blood to leak in the wrong direction, which is heard as a heart murmur.
A dicky heart has limited ways of expressing itself; therefore it’s not possible to diagnose the type of heart disease based on clinical signs alone. The latter may make your vet suspicious of heart disease, but screening tests are necessary to reach a firm diagnosis.
Slow (Chronic) vs Sudden (Acute) Heart Disease
A dog with heart disease may faint when chasing a stick.
A cat with heart disease sleeps more.
See the problem?
Cats are masters at hiding they have a problem.
This matters because the heart has a coping mechanism that it calls on to keep the body ticking over. By the time a cat starts to show signs of a problem, their heart disease is already far progressed and compensatory mechanisms are not helping.
Thus, it’s common that a cat may have had heart disease that’s been slowly getting worse (or “chronic” in vet speak), and suddenly becomes ill (a sudden or short illness is known as “acute”). Hence a cat with chronic heart disease often presents in acute heart failure.
Signs of Heart Disease in Cats
OK, now you’re panicking, fearful your feline friend has a dodgy heart that you don’t know about. What signs should you look for?
- Hiding away more than before
- Sleeping more
- Poor appetite
- Rapid or heavy breathing
- Cold paws
Remember, these signs don’t automatically mean your cat has heart disease, but they are an indication that a vet check is a good idea. Oh yes, and bear in mind that coughing is rare in cats, so it’s not safe to assume just because your cat doesn’t have a cough that she can’t have heart disease.
The biggest clue to heart disease is to watch your cat breathing, because fluid in or around the lungs as a result of poor heart function, makes it difficult for the cat to breathe. Be vigilant for signs such as:
- a raised number of breaths per minute (Normal is less than 20-25 at rest)
- using the stomach muscles to take a breath
- shallow breaths
- weakness and collapse
- resting with the head and neck straight, and the elbows held away from the chest wall (the so-called “Air hunger” position)
If you see any of these do NOT stress your cat. Leave them resting and don’t disturb them until it’s time to visit the vet.
For the ultra-vigilant amongst you, other clues to a heart problem include:
- cold paws (due to poor circulation)
- a racing heart rate
- an enlarged belly (due to fluid retention)
- pale gums
Remember not all of these signs are present in every case, so just one or two symptoms should trigger a call to your vet.
Reaching a Diagnosis
One reason an annual or six-monthly (in older cats) check-up is advised, is so your vet can trouble shoot for those valuable clues that the cat’s heart is struggling.
During an examination the vet listens to the cat’s heart and lungs, paying special attention to their rate, rhythm, and sounds. Even if a heart murmur isn’t present, a rapid heart with an irregular beat is a strong warning that all is not well, long before the cat shows physical signs.
Other parameters the vet is on the lookout for are:
- the pulse quality
- congestion in the lungs
- a change in the heart rhythm
- a change in rate since the last exam
- the colour of the gums and how quickly blood returns after pressing the gums.
If heart disease is a concern then your vet may run a blood test that can flag if the heart muscle is distressed or healthy. If the result confirms a heart under strain then an ultrasound exam allows the clinician to look at the size, shape, and thickness of structures in the heart in order to reach a diagnosis.
Remember, the sooner heart disease is diagnosed, the better the long term outlook. If you are suspicious your cat may have a problem, then play it safe and get her looked over by your vet.
Dr Pippa Elliott BVMS MRCVS is a veterinarian with 27-years’ experience in practice and a special interest in feline medicine and behaviour. Pippa is housekeeping staff to four highly individual cats that conspire to keep her busy opening doors on demand.