Between the years of 2007 and 2017, the number of active board certified veterinary specialists increased by 32 percent according to the American Veterinary Medical Association’s market research statistics. While nearly all specialties experienced growth in the last decade, the area of cardiology leads the pack with a 46 percent increase in the number of active veterinary cardiologists over the last 10 years.
More cardiologists, along with better informed pet owners, has resulted in a greater diagnosis of heart disease in dogs and cats. And a common precursor to heart disease in pets is the presence of high blood pressure, also known as hypertension.
Pet parents should understand the causes, signs and treatment options, such as pet prescription heart and blood pressure medication, in dogs and cats to help prevent or delay longer-term heart complications down the road.
Causes of High Blood Pressure in Dogs and Cats
High blood pressure in dogs and cats occurs when a pet’s arteries are too narrow or too “stiff,” making it so that the heart muscle (specifically the left ventricle) has to work harder.
In pets, high blood pressure is usually the result of another disease process. Common causes of high blood pressure in cats and dogs include:
Other organs commonly affected by systemic hypertension are the eyes, kidneys and the brain.
How High Blood Pressure Contributes to Heart Disease in Dogs and Cats
As the left ventricle works to pump harder, the increased workload causes a pet’s heart muscle to stiffen and lose its functionality. Hypertension can also result in the dysfunction of the mitral and/or the aortic valve.
If the muscle and/or valve dysfunction becomes severe, pressure within the heart and the veins that drain into the heart becomes too high, forcing fluid out of the circulation and into surrounding tissues such as the lungs. This is called congestive heart failure.
Signs or symptoms of congestive heart failure in dogs and cats include:
- Rapid breathing
- Difficulty breathing
- Low energy level
Diagnosing High Blood Pressure in Dogs and Cats
Veterinarians are typically able to diagnose high blood pressure in dogs and cats by obtaining a pet’s complete medical history, performing a physical exam, and performing blood and urine testing. In some cases, additional testing (such as an ultrasound) is necessary.
Treating and Preventing High Blood Pressure in Dogs and Cats
There are treatments available that can significantly help regulate high blood pressure and improve a pet’s quality of life.
If your pet has been diagnosed with high blood pressure, it’s important to have your pet’s blood pressure checked regularly. Older pets are more likely than younger animals to develop high blood pressure, so senior dogs and cats may require testing on an annual or semi-annual basis.
The current treatment for high blood pressure in cats and dogs is daily oral medication that helps to dilate the arteries, such as ACE inhibitors or calcium channel blockers. Most pets tolerate these medications well and experience minimal adverse side effects.
But what about preventing or reversing hypertension? Several studies in people have shown that diet plays a major role in the development and progression of hypertension and heart disease. Veterinarians and nutritionists (like those at Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine) are currently investigating the potential link between nutrition and the development of chronic diseases, including heart disease in dogs and cats.
If certain diets are capable of preventing and/or reversing chronic diseases in pets, this would provide an alternative treatment pathway for millions of chronically ill animals. It may be only a matter of time before we discover that the food we feed our pets has far greater impact on their health than we ever thought possible.
Dr. Sarah M. Cavanaugh (Scruggs), DVM, MS, DACVIM (Cardiology) is the assistant professor, Small Animal Medicine at Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine.
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