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feline health problems
Cat playing with heart shaped toy

📷 by Gundula Vogel

The essentials

  • Heart disease in cats can be congenital or acquired — Some cats are born with damage or defects while others develop them over time.
  • Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is the most common heart condition in cats — Over time, it can lead to elevated blood pressure and heart failure.
  • Common symptoms of heart disease include difficulty breathing, coughing, weight loss, and lethargy — However, many cats don’t display clinical signs until the disease is advanced.

Heart health matters

Humans are often reminded of the importance of heart health. But what about our pets? Unfortunately, both dogs and cats commonly experience heart problems.

Recognizing heart issues in cats is especially tricky, as they tend to be good at hiding their pain. Some don’t even experience clinical symptoms until their disease has progressed and worsened. For these reasons, it’s important for cat owners to stay as educated as possible about the symptoms of common feline heart conditions.

Common heart problems in cats

Feline heart disease is generally divided into two categories: congenital illnesses and adult-onset issues. Heart diseases vary widely in diagnosis, outlook, and treatment. Learning to identify common heart problems early on is one of the best tools owners have to lessen the impact of heart disease on their pets. Some common heart issues in cats are listed below:

Congenital heart diseases. Cats can experience heart defects at birth, though this issue occurs more frequently in dogs. The most common heart defect in cats is a ventricular septal defect (VSD), which is essentially a hole in the heart. Other congenital conditions include malformed heart valves and abnormalities of the blood vessels. Often (but not always), these conditions result in a heart murmur, which may be detected with a stethoscope.

Arterial thromboembolism (ATE). Also called aortic thromboembolism, ATE is marked by blood clots that are lodged in the heart. As discussed below, blood clots can cause devastating effects on cats when left unaddressed. If you suspect an ATE in your cat, visit a veterinarian immediately.

Systemic hypertension. Like humans, cats experience high blood pressure, also known as hypertension. The condition in cats is usually caused by another underlying disease. Over time, cats with hypertension often develop heart disease due to the thickening muscle walls in the chambers of the heart.

Hyperthyroidism. When a cat’s thyroid gland overproduces hormones, their metabolism then increases. As a result, the heart must work harder to keep up, so cats with this condition often experience an irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia). Untreated hyperthyroidism can also ultimately lead to enlargement of the heart.

Dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). Cardiomyopathies (diseases of the heart muscle) are the most common heart conditions in cats. DCM is often caused by a dietary deficiency of the amino acid taurine. Since taurine is now commonplace in most cat foods, DCM is rarely seen in cats today.

Restrictive cardiomyopathy (RCM). RCM involves a buildup of scar tissue on the lining of the heart’s left ventricle. This affects the functioning of the heart and therefore the regularity of a cat’s heartbeat. Doctors need to perform an echocardiogram to confirm an RCM diagnosis.

Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM). HCM is the most commonly diagnosed feline disease of the heart. As detailed below, the condition can affect all types of cats and cause a variety of serious health complications.

Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy: A common feline killer

HCM in cats is marked by substantial thickening of the walls of the left ventricle. This, in turn, prevents the heart from relaxing normally and decreases its efficacy, which can then cause cats to develop blood clots. Blood may also back up into the rest of the heart or lungs.

As with other cardiac conditions, cats with HCM don’t often display symptoms. However, there are certain warning signs that offer hints of heart trouble. Cats with HCM are especially prone to potentially devastating blood clots, so it’s vital to recognize signs of the disease as early as possible.

A veterinarian will often hear a heart murmur during a physical exam, which is the first indication of heart disease. An echocardiogram or ultrasound of the heart is often needed to determine the cause of the murmur. This is how HCM is usually diagnosed. Cats that develop heart failure secondary to HCM can exhibit coughing, heavy or open-mouthed breathing, and an increase in respiratory rate.

The dangers of blood clots

Cats with heart diseases or conditions are especially vulnerable to blood clots. As touched on above, ATE, or blood clots in the heart, can quickly lead to serious complications. Blood clots commonly get lodged where the aorta branches in what’s called a saddle thrombus. The result is a blockage of blood flow to the hind legs, which can cause extreme pain, cold legs, and purple or white footpads.

This can lead to lameness, paralysis, and in extreme cases, sudden death. Blood clots of the heart are life-threatening and should always be considered emergent. If you think your cat is affected, you’ll need to get them help right away.

Signs of heart disease in cats

As owners can attest, many cats have a tendency toward stoicism. That is, plenty will hide their pain or symptoms for as long as possible. In addition, cats with heart disease don’t tend to cough or experience a heart murmur, as many humans and dogs do. Lastly, due to their nature, it can be tricky to recognize a sudden onset of exercise intolerance or lethargy in cats. While not always conclusive of heart disease, the following common signals can help cat owners learn to identify any underlying heart issues:

  • Lack of appetite
  • Lethargy or lack of energy
  • Weight loss
  • Labored, open-mouthed, or rapid breathing
  • Coughing
  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased hiding
  • Increase sleeping
  • Purple or white footpads
  • Paralysis of the rear legs
  • Sudden collapse

While all cats are susceptible to various forms of heart disease, some breeds are more predisposed than others. Maine Coon cats, American and British shorthairs, Persians, and ragdoll cats are affected most often.

Diagnosing and treating your cat’s heart disease

Unfortunately, diagnosis of heart disease in cats remains difficult. Since many cats don’t exhibit clinical signs, it’s important to bring your cat to the vet every year for an exam. A doctor will listen for a heart murmur. If detected, the next step is a blood test called proBNP that checks the function of the heart. If a cat’s proBNP level is elevated, this suggests the presence of significant heart disease. Following this, a full cardiac workup may be needed, which often includes a blood pressure check and an echocardiogram (ECG). ECGs help vets detect arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats). Besides an ECG, vets may perform chest X-rays to check for enlargement of the heart or fluid buildup in the lungs.

Cat-gets-echocardiogram

A cat gets an echocardiogram, or cardiac ultrasound, one of the best ways to detect heart disease in both dogs and cats.

Treatment of feline cardiac conditions depends on the type and severity of the affliction. With some mild cardiomyopathy, no treatment may be needed. In some other cases, simple changes, like a switch to a low-sodium diet, may be recommended. In other cases, cats will require medical treatment with one or more medications.

For cats, common heart medications include beta-blockers like atenolol, ACE inhibitors like enalapril or benazepril, and diuretics like furosemide. As with any pet medication, the daily dosage and treatment plan should be discussed in-depth with a doctor before beginning any prescription regimen.

Heart failure

The accumulation of fluid in the lungs that is caused by many heart conditions is known as congestive heart failure. Sadly, there is currently no cure for congestive heart failure in cats, and this disease progresses rapidly. While there are medications to help improve quality of life, heart disease will progress regardless. Cats are often in late-stage heart failure by the time they begin to exhibit symptoms.

For this reason, keeping up a routine of regular veterinary visits is a crucial part of responsible cat ownership. Cats can’t always tell, or even show us, what they want or need, so the best course of action for owners is to trust the advice of dedicated medical professionals.

Keeping cats’ hearts healthy

There are plenty of small steps owners can take to help keep heart problems at bay, ranging from the obvious to the outside the box. Some of our favorite tips include the following:

Make regular vet visits — Routine checkups are often the best preventative measure we can take as pet owners. Find a veterinarian you trust and keep them up to speed on your cat’s health.

Monitor your cat’s weight — Some cat owners free-feed their pets, making it harder to track their food intake and weight. Consider feeding your cat individual meals, and take note of any changes in appetite. Cats that won’t eat for a variety of reasons can quickly begin losing weight.

Feed your feline a healthy, balanced diet Feeding your cat a high-quality, meat-based, nutrient-rich diet is a great way to ensure they’re happy and healthy — and keep illnesses at bay.

Keep up with parasite prevention — Heartworm disease is transmitted by mosquitoes, and both indoor and outdoor cats can pick it up. Sadly, there’s no current cure for heartworm in cats. Year-round protection against heartworm, fleas, ticks, and internal parasites is always a good idea for cat owners. Preventative options include Revolution Plus, Bravecto Plus, and Advantage Multi.

Frequently asked questions

What are the signs of heart disease in cats?

Cats often don’t show clinical symptoms until their heart disease has progressed. Some common warning signs include difficulty breathing, coughing, and a decrease in appetite and energy.

How long can cats with heart disease live?

Depending on the condition, cats can live for years with heart disease, though some will require life-long medication. With congestive heart failure, the outlook is somewhat grim. Many cats survive only six to 12 months after being diagnosed.

Is heart disease in cats treatable?

In many cases, yes. There’s currently no cure for cardiomyopathy or congestive heart failure. But, there are medications that can aid in treatment. These include beta-blockers, ACE inhibitors, and diuretics. In some cases, a low-sodium diet may be prescribed.

How can I prevent heart disease in my cat?

Regular vet visits are the best way to catch any heart condition At-home steps to maintain heart health include a balanced diet and weight management.