Heart disease can affect cats in various ways. Learn what to look out for and how to keep your cat’s heart healthy.
The impact of heart disease in cats
Heart disease can have a huge impact on your cat’s overall health and has the potential to lead to heart failure if left untreated. While it’s not as common in cats as it is in dogs, it’s still important for cat owners to understand the different types of heart disease that can develop, including causes, symptoms and treatment.
Congenital vs adult onset heart disease
Generally speaking, cat heart disease can be divided into two categories: congenital (where a heart defect is present from birth) and adult onset (where heart disease occurs as a result of damage to the heart during a cat’s life).
Adult onset heart disease
Adult onset heart disease usually occurs as cats get older due to general wear and tear on the structures of the heart. Heart disease can also result from an injury or infection.
The most frequent type of adult onset heart disease found in cats is cardiomyopathy, which is a disease of the heart muscle. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (or HCM) is by far the most common and causes the heart muscles to become too thick and strong, narrowing the space that the blood flows through and weakening the pumping action of the heart. According to the Animal Health Trust, 1.2 million cats are affected with HCM in the UK.
The origins of most cardiomyopathies are unknown, although genetics and lifestyle may play an important role. For example, Maine coon cats are often predisposed to cardiomyopathies due to a defect in their DNA which causes the muscle walls to double, or even triple, in thickness.
Cats can also experience dilated cardiomyopathy which occurs if their diet lacks the amino acid taurine. However, most cat food now contains adequate amounts of taurine, so this form of heart disease is becoming increasingly rare.
Congenital heart disease
Congenital heart disease is relatively rare in cats. It’s usually caused by a birth defect in a valve, or in the wall that separates the left and right side of the heart. These defects disrupt the flow of blood and can cause a heart murmur. This is normally detected during a kitten’s initial health checks; however, congenital heart issues can sometimes go unnoticed for many years.
What are the symptoms?
Due to their nature, most cats are adept at hiding symptoms of illness until the condition becomes very advanced. Some subtle early signs include shortness of breath, reduced appetite and a reluctance to exercise.
Due to the lack of symptoms, the best way to identify heart disease is with regular nose-to-tail health checks with your vet. During your appointment, your vet will monitor your cat’s heart rate and rhythm, allowing them to identify any issues as soon as possible.
Treating heart disease in cats
The specific treatment of heart disease depends on the cause. Very few congenital heart issues can be treated and, in most cases, careful monitoring is the best option.
There’s also currently no cure for HCM, as changes in the size and structure of the heart are irreversible. In cases where HCM is a result of another treatable condition, the symptoms can be alleviated when the underlying issue is addressed.
Regular medication can help reduce the risk of heart failure resulting from HCM. The right medication can help relax the muscle, slow down the heart rate and decrease the workload of the heart. It’s important to remember that owners of cats with HCM need to monitor their pet closely for any changes in their breathing and vital signs, as well as attend regular health checks with a vet.
Preventing adult onset heart disease
Although the causes of adult onset are still largely unknown, lifestyle factors including diet and exercise are believed to play a role.
It’s always a good idea to give your cat a healthy diet and plenty of opportunities to exercise. A heart-healthy diet includes high protein, low-salt cat food and minimal treats. It can be difficult to encourage your cat to exercise, but a few minutes every day playing with a toy or climbing a scratching tree can help.
Regular health checks with a vet play an important role in preventing heart disease. Your vet will be able to identify any abnormalities in their heart rate and can arrange for a blood test to identify if your cat is more at risk.