Heart Disease in Cats

image of a cat at vet.

Cats are wonderful pets. In fact, they outnumber dogs as pets in the United States. It is estimated that 85 to 95 million cats are kept as pets; one-third of all households have at least one feline friend. It is important for cat owners to be aware of a stealthy disease that may affect as much as 15 to 20% of all cats.

Heart disease is one of the more common problems in the cat, and can affect cats of all ages. Some causes of heart disease may never cause the cat any symptoms; some can cause severe signs, even sudden death.

By far the most common heart disease in the cat is hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) accounting for at least 60% of all heart disease in the cat. This is an excess thickening of the heart muscle walls, so much that it interferes with the pumping action of the heart. The walls can even get so thick that the ventricle chamber is greatly reduced in size, and therefore only a small amount of blood can be pumped with each contraction.

Cats with mild HCM may never show any symptoms, but more commonly cats with HCM develop one of three scenarios: congestive heart failure, clot formation, or sudden death. Cats do not cough with congestive heart failure as dogs do; cats in heart failure have a fast respiratory rate and labored breathing. If you study their sides, you can see they are using their abdominal muscles to help them breathe. You may notice they do not want to lie down in a normal manner, they sit sphinx-like and are reluctant to move.

HCM cats are prone to clots. These form within the heart, and can break off and are swept by the blood stream to other areas of the body. The clots can go anywhere, but most commonly they go down the aorta and lodge where the arteries divide to go into the rear legs. You will find these cats unable to use their rear legs and crying in pain. Your veterinarian will be suspicious of such a clot if the rear paws are cold, the femoral pulses are absent, and the pads of the rear feet are pale while the front pads are pink.

Cats with HCM may also die suddenly. They may act fine one minute, and die within seconds to a couple minutes. Death can be due to a severe arrhythmia or a clot that affects the brain.

HCM can develop sporadically in any breed or type of cat, but as it does have a genetic basis, certain breeds are prone to this potentially devastating disease. Maine Coons, American Shorthairs, Ragdolls, and Persians have a much higher incidence than most other breeds, but each of these four breeds has its own genetic variation of HCM. The Maine Coon and Ragdoll breeders have funded a veterinarian who does genetic research to develop genetic screens for their breeds. But, unfortunately each test works only for that breed for which it was developed.

Regular examinations are important as your veterinarian will auscultate your cat’s heart (listen with a stethoscope) each time it is seen. A murmur means more investigation is needed. A murmur is just a symptom, it is caused by turbulence of blood not flowing in the normal manner. There are innocent murmurs, which means, there is a murmur but it is not clinically important, and will never cause the cat a problem. To make HCM even more difficult, one- third of HCM cats do not have any murmur at all.

Other tests that may be done are blood tests, especially a thyroid test, and proBNP, which is a newer test to check for cardiomyopathy. Blood pressures and chest x-rays may also be done, especially if fluid in the lungs is suspected. Radiographs (x-rays) of the heart are not useful, as severe heart disease can be present while the heart looks normal, but x-rays are needed to check the lungs.

The most important test to diagnose heart disease is an echocardiogram, which is an ultrasound of the heart, and needs to be performed by a veterinary cardiologist. With an echo, the internal structure of the heart can be seen, and measurements taken of chamber size, valves of the heart observed for leaks with Doppler, and a diagnosis made.

There is no cure for HCM, but there are various drugs used to try to manage the disease. Diuretics are used if they have started into failure; also atenolol, diltiazem, and enalapril have been used, although no studies have shown great efficacy. Plavix, an anti-coagulant, is used if the heart is in the stage where clots are a concern.

There are other heart diseases that occur in cats: heartworm parasites, congenital malformations, restrictive cardiomyopathy, and dilated cardiomyopathy. The latter problem is much less common in the last decade since cat foods have been supplemented with higher levels of taurine.

In summary, regular examinations are important to keep your feline friend healthy. Your cat’s doctor will always be mindful of the potential for heart disease, listen for any abnormal sounds, and question you on any symptoms you may be seeing. Your veterinarian can help your cat stay happy, playful, and as awesome as ever!

References:
www.vet.cornell.edu/fhc
www.humanesociety.org

Location

Find us on the map

Office Hours

Our Regular Schedule--see Covid19 tab comments

Monday:

8:00 am-5:00 pm

Tuesday:

8:00 am-5:00 pm

Wednesday:

8:00 am-5:00 pm

Thursday:

8:00 am-5:00 pm

Friday:

8:00 am-5:00 pm

Saturday:

9 am to 1 pm

Sunday:

Closed

Testimonials

Read What Our Clients Say

    Dr. Joi Sutton is an incredible vet! She was willing to change her weekend around and help me and my 20 year old cat. I highly recommend meeting her in person. She is smart and caring!

    Michelle C​​

    Dr. Joi is fantastic we have been with her for about six years now and she's the best vet I have ever had, I've had dogs all my life and so I've seen my share of vets and she's the tops, She even made a house call in an emergency and nobody does that anymore, I would highly recommend her to anybody that has a cat or a dog or any other small animal that she might take care of.

    Larry L​​

    I love Tequesta Veterinary Clinic! Joi and the entire staff are so friendly and helpful. I'm forever grateful that I found them as a second opinion several years ago when another vet was ready to give up and put my dog to sleep at only 2 years old! Joi took the common sense approach, started from the beginning, and went over the basics that the other vet missed. She literally saved our dog's life and saved us thousands of dollars in unnecessary testing too. It's hard to find a good vet, and I recommend Tequesta Veterinary Clinic to everyone who asks!

    Michelle B​​

    Our cat became ill and we were in a panic about what was happening. The staff at Tequesta Veterinary Clinic was extremely helpful, kind, gentle, and knowledgeable. Dr. Joi is professional, a nonalarmist, and very experienced. Both our cat and our family were well respected and tended to, which isn’t an easy task. We’ve known this clinic for years and years as Dr. Joi also helped my parents and their dog over the years. I highly recommended her and her work.

    Lani S​​

    My old man, a 12-year-old beagle named "Juice", was treated like a king at this vet. I just moved from Pittsburgh and Juice really needed some dental work. I was putting it off until June when I returned to Pittsburgh but then I found this vet a half-mile down the road. Dr. Joi and her whole staff are amazing. They made me feel very comfortable taking my dog here for procedures and routine check-ups. After Juice's procedure, Dr. Joi gave me her personal number and called me to check on him. She goes the extra mile for her patients.

    Jonathan C