Heart problems can affect cats of any age. They are more frequent in middle to old aged cats, but kittens can be born with heart problems. If diagnosed early and treated, many cats can live a good life.
Cats can have several types of heart problems. Different treatment options are available. The choice will depend on the type of heart disease and the symptoms your cat shows. Heart disease in cats is not painful. But if it’s not treated, heart disease can worsen your cat’s quality of life and eventually lead to death. It is important to take your cat for yearly health checks with a vet. This way, signs of heart disease can be picked up early and treatment started.
What does heart disease in cats mean?
Heart disease means your cat’s heart has a problem that affects the way it functions and pumps blood around the body. There are several types of heart problems in cats:
This is the most common type of heart disease in cats. The heart muscle becomes thicker and less blood fits inside its main chamber, called the left ventricle. As a consequence, a backflow of blood causes pressure to build in the vessels that bring blood towards the heart. In advanced stages of the disease, this leads to fluid leaking into the lungs or other parts of the body.
When the heartbeats are irregular, this can cause fainting.
Problems in the sac that involve the heart.
Congenital heart disease
When the heart has defects that are present from birth. These are rare and may need high-risk surgery.
Restrictive cardiomyopathy: the heart muscle becomes stiff and can’t pump blood properly. It may be due to infections or inflammation of the heart, called myocarditis.
Dilated cardiomyopathy: the heart muscle weakens and the chambers become larger and unable to pump blood properly. It can happen because of a lack of the amino acid taurine in their food.
Other illnesses such as hyperthyroidism and chronic kidney disease may lead to increased blood pressure and heart problems.
Symptoms of heart problems in cats
Cats are extremely good at hiding signs of heart problems. Most of the time they don’t show any signs until they are very ill, but you may notice the following symptoms:
- Sleeping more
- Playing less, no longer hunting
- Eating less
- Losing weight
- Breathing more rapidly or with difficulty
- Developing a blue tongue or gums
- Fainting, weakness or wobbliness
- Suddenly losing use of back legs and signs of pain
- Getting cold paws and legs
Are some cats more prone to heart disease?
Heart disease can affect cats of all ages.
Certain breeds of cat are more likely to develop heart problems, including:
- Maine Coon
- British Shorthair
- Devon rex
Heart disease is also more common in cats with high blood pressure due to:
- Primary high blood pressure
- Chronic kidney disease
Cats fed on home-cooked food, vegetarian or vegan diets can lack an essential amino acid called taurine. Taurine deficiency in the diet can lead to heart, eye, tummy and fertility problems.
How vets diagnose heart problems in your cat
Vets usually identify the first signs of heart disease from the information you give and when listening to your cat’s heart using a stethoscope.
Changes detected include:
- Faster than normal heart rate, called tachycardia
- Heart murmurs
- Irregular heartbeat, called arrhythmia
Different types of heart disease may need different treatments and a correct diagnosis is important. Sometimes referral to a cardiologist (someone who specialises in heart disease) may also be necessary. In order to determine the type and severity of the problem, they may suggest:
- Blood tests
- Heart scan
- Measuring blood pressure
Treatments for heart disease in cats
Treatment depends on the underlying cause and severity of heart disease.
Cats with mild changes, such as a quiet heart murmur, and no symptoms or underlying problems, need:
- No medical treatment
- Regular check-ups with a vet: listening to the heart, checking weight and breathing rate
Cats with symptoms or where tests suggest advanced heart issues may require:
- Medicine to lower blood pressure and improve circulation, including ACE inhibitors like benazepril
- Medicine that relaxes and enlarges blood vessels such as amlodipine used to treat high blood pressure
- Medicine to slow the heart and improve its efficiency as a pump, such as atenolol
- Medicine to remove excess fluid from the lungs and chest called diuretics (water tablets), like furosemide
If your cat is very poorly and struggling to breathe, they need urgent hospital admission for emergency treatment, including:
- Oxygen therapy
- Diuretic injections
- Sedation to reduce anxiety and workload on the heart
- Chest drainage
- Pain relief where needed
How to look after a cat with heart disease at home
Cats with heart disease need diagnosis, treatment and monitoring at your veterinary practice.
However, there are things you can do at home to monitor your cat’s heart symptoms and improve their quality of life:
- Checking respiratory rate at rest: Count how many breaths your cat takes in one minute when they are sleeping. The normal resting respiratory rate in cats is between 15 and 30 breaths per minute. Do this once daily if your cat has been diagnosed with heart disease, or several times a day if you are worried.
- Feeding heart-friendly cat food: prescription food that provides good levels of taurine and low salt
- Checking body weight and Body Condition Score (BCS) regularly.
- Making sure they have a safe space they can retreat to and where they can rest undisturbed.
- Continuing to give the medicine as prescribed by your vet.
Regular monitoring helps identify changes earlier and improve the outlook for your cat.
Body Condition Score (BCS) is a scale that gives a practical evaluation of the fat coverage of your cat’s body. By checking how easy or not it is to feel certain bony areas of the body, a score is then produced. There are several scales, from 1 to 5 or 1 to 9. The ideal body condition lies in the middle, so either 3/5 or 5/9.
The body areas normally checked for fat coverage are:
1. ribs and spine
2. hips and shoulders
Here are a few tips on how to do it.
With your pet in a standing position:
- Place your hands on the rib cage and gently feel for each rib, without pressing too hard
- Feel the waist and look from the top and the side (if you have a very furry breed, it may be harder to assess)
- Feel the spine, which runs down the middle of the back
- Feel the top of the hips and shoulders
Tips on how to prevent heart disease in cats
Much like with people, there are a few things you can do to decrease the risk of your cat developing heart problems.
- Provide good quality commercial food throughout their life, adequate to age and life stage. Cats are obligatory carnivores. They need adequate amounts of an amino acid called taurine that exists in meat to be provided in their food. This is more available in supplemented commercial cat food than it is in home-cooked food, vegetarian or vegan preparations.
- Maintain a healthy weight and BCS for their breed
- Promote exercise
- Attend regular health checks with your vet
- Avoid breeding cats that have relatives that were born with heart disease
- Avoid breeding cats that are known to have heart problems
Living with a cat with heart disease
- Feed a good quality prescription food adequate for heart problems
- Provide clean and fresh water
- Keep a medication diary
- Record the resting respiration rate daily
- Monitor changes in behaviour
- Speak to our nurses or our vets if you are worried
When to worry
When you should worry about your cat with heart disease
Seek help from a vet in practice immediately if:
- Your cat is struggling to breathe, is open-mouth breathing or gasping for air
- Has blue or grey gums
- Is very tired and you are struggling to wake them up
- Is meowing in pain
- Can’t move their back legs
Call a vet now if your cat:
- Has a resting respiratory rate consistently above 30 breaths per minute
- Is losing weight or has less appetite
- Is spending a lot of time sleeping
Joii can help if:
- you need help looking after your cat with heart disease in a stress-free manner
- you need guidance on how to take your cat’s resting respiratory rate
- you want to have your cat’s BCS checked
- you need advice on feeding your cat with heart disease
- you need tips on how to give medication to your cat