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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.
Really useful article. Have brother and sister from same litter 1 had mummur from kitten other from around 7, both now 15, 1 with 3 legs. Got progressively worse within 6 months of each other with blood clots on both cutting off supply to back legs. emergency vet trip and drugs and both recovered, had ultra sounds, tests and specialist appointments and both on life long meds. Only a matter of time for both but they are comfortable and happy so that’s all that matters.
Theresa-Marie Wilson says
Great article. These kinds of tips on what to look for are so helpful in caring for our furry family members, especially when you trust the person it is coming from. Thank you.
Sweet Purrfections says
I always enjoy reading your information posts. I’ll keep this information handy. It’s very difficult to tell when cats are ill because they hide it so well.
Yes, I guess it would be difficult to detect a problem in cats vs. dogs. Thank you for sharing the signs of heart disease in cats.
Thanks for sharing some of the warning signs. My cat is a senior, so I’m trying to be much more observant so I can share details with my vet.
Cathy Armato says
My cat Mousey many years ago had a heart problem. I never knew he had this issue and he passed away quietly in his sleep one night. It was right after we moved to another house, maybe it stressed him out too much. Thanks for sharing this, it may help someone before it’s too late.
Sherri Telenko says
Ok, I too thought heart disease was rare in cats. Although, decades ago my mother’s 6-year-old very large (size, not weight) white cat died of a heart attack. He had been treated for allergies for years and I always wondered if that was a misdiagnosis.
Tenacious Little Terrier says
I didn’t know heart disease presented differently in cats than dogs. It’s always hard because they can’t tell us what’s wrong!
Rebecca at MattieDog says
Your hiding away tip is key – it’s something that might not readily be detected, but it always indicates something. Thanks for writing – we’ll share with our readers too!
I’ll have to ask my vet what they are for toy dogs … I wonder if they are similar or even the same.
Carol Bryant says
Such a fantastic post. I have a doggie heart post scheduled for March. It is so important to stay on top of things as a pet parent and know what is normal. This is very helpful and I am sharing now.
We always take our seniors in six monthly, in the hope anything like this can be captured and dealt with.
Our first cat had a heart murmur. This was an enlightening and educational article. Thank you.
Thanks for such an interesting post. It does seem like a problem that’s more common in dogs than cats. Having said that, one of my cats had a heart problem. It was discovered during a routine appointment when we were told he had a heart murmur, then testing found thickening of the walls. It was quite a few years ago so I don’t recall the exact details, but I do remember there were no changes in his behaviour that indicated any issues. Thankfully the problem didn’t require any treatment or medication, just regular checkups.
Bryn Nowell says
Very interesting. I hadn’t really thought how this may be difficult to identify in a cat, but now that I’ve read your explanation, that makes perfect sense. Is this condition treatable? Generally, what can an owner expect if they are planning on treating the condition?
I would recommend, if you’re able, to add a photo of the position you’ve described where the cat is exhibiting “air hunger,” that visual may really help an owner recognize the position in addition to the other indicators.
Tonya Wilhelm says
Great post. My cat was diagnosed with a “heart murmur” when I rescued him. Those vets (not current vet) said he probably wouldn’t live long. That was 15 years ago. 😉
What a great and informative post! Cold paws! I would never had even thought of checking my cat’s paws to see if they are cold. Cats are indeed masters at hiding symptoms of ill health. Thank you for bringing this important health issue to my attention.
Golden Daily Scoop says
What a great and informative post. I wish there was a way to detect heart disease a little more easier for these poor cats. It’s best to have a good relationship with your vet and keeping up with regular vet visits.
Melissa Lapierre says
This is a very informative post for cat owners. Having lost one senior kitty to congestive heart failure and a 4-year old to a sudden saddle thrombus two years later, I’m all too aware of how devastating heart disease in cats can be.
Heart disease in kitties is so hard for their humans to detect – the symptoms for heart disease are subtle and can mean different things. That’s why it is so important to have a good relationship with a vet and regular vet visits.