Congestive heart failure (CHF) is a common ailment in older dogs. While more common in large dog breeds, CHF can and does strike smaller dogs as well. Genetics can play a role in your dog's chances of acquiring this disease, which can occur as dogs age. CHF occurs when your dog's heart stops pumping blood efficiently, which in turn leads to a myriad of specific symptoms.
Symptoms of congestive heart failure begin because your dog's heart has been damaged. By far the most common cause is damage to the heart valves. When a dog's heart valve weaken due to disease like cardiomyopathy or just through the aging process, the heart enlarges and blood is no longer efficiently pumped through the body. Therefore, the body's oxygen supply is greatly decreased.
Symptoms of congestive heart failure are pretty consistent between dogs. The first symptom tends to be a decrease in activity level. Also, appetite often decreases as well. Next, an owner will often note the dog pants all the time, even while resting, and coughs for no apparent reason. With time, the belly often swells with fluid, and the gums often appear grayish rather than pink, due to a lack of oxygen. If an ECG is taken by the vet, it will clearly be abnormal.
Symptoms of congestive heart failure usually occur in dogs over the age of five, although, in cases of cardiomyopathy, they can occur earlier. By the time the dog shows symptoms, the disease process has already been present for quite some time. Once a diagnosis is made, it's very rare that a dog will live more than a year, and six months is more common.
You should schedule a visit with your vet if you notice symptoms of congestive heart failure in your dog. An exam with a stethoscope will be enough to make your vet suspicious of CHF, which will usually be followed by either a chest X-ray or cardiac ultrasound to confirm the diagnosis. If your vet suspects it's still early in the disease process, he might suggest an EKG, which is able to show positive findings sooner than either X-ray or ultrasound.
Once a diagnosis of congestive heart failure has been made, your vet will most likely prescribe medication for your dog. One drug called digitalis is often given to help increase the force of the heart's contractions. Diuretics such as Lasix are also frequently used to eliminate the excess fluid from the body and help increase blood flow. ACE inhibitors can help improve blood flow as well by altering the chemical reactions within the blood vessels. In certain cases, L-carnitine may also be helpful.