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Heart Disease and Heart Failure in Cats


Suzanne M. Cunningham

, DVM, DACVIM-Cardiology, Department of Clinical Sciences, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Tufts University;

Kursten V. Roderick

, DVM, Tufts University

Reviewed/Revised Jul 2018 | Modified Oct 2022

Slightly more than 10% of the animals examined by a veterinarian have some form of cardiovascular disease. Similar to longterm diseases of many other organ systems, cardiovascular diseases generally do not go away but can become more serious and may lead to death. In addition, cardiovascular diseases may be more difficult to detect and quantify because the heart cannot be seen and is protected so well by the rib cage.

Heart disease can be defined as any abnormality of the heart. It encompasses a wide range of conditions, including congenital abnormalities Congenital and Inherited Disorders of the Cardiovascular System of Cats Congenital abnormalities of the cardiovascular system are defects that are present at birth. They can occur as a result of genetic defects, environmental conditions, infections, poisoning, medication... read more and disorders of physical structure, function, or electrical activity. It can be classified by various methods, including whether the disease was present at birth or not (that is, congenital or acquired), causes (for example, infectious or degenerative), duration (for example, long- or short-term), clinical status (for example, left heart failure, right heart failure, biventricular failure), or by physical structure malformation (for example, ventricular septal defect), or by electrical disturbance (for example, atrial fibrillation).

Heart failure Heart Failure in Cats Heart failure is not a specific disease or diagnosis. It is a syndrome in which severe dysfunction results in failure of the cardiovascular system to maintain adequate blood circulation. There... read more is any heart abnormality that results in failure of the heart to pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs. It is not a specific disease; rather, it is a condition in which congestion or an abnormal accumulation of fluid, decreased blood flow to the body, and/or abnormally low blood pressure arise as the final consequence of severe heart disease. Heart disease can be present without ever leading to heart failure. Heart failure, however, can only occur if heart disease is present because it is a consequence of severe heart disease.

Abnormalities of the Cardiovascular System

The following abnormalities of the cardiovascular system can lead to heart disease: 1) the heart valves fail to close or open properly (valve disease); 2) the heart muscle pumps too weakly or relaxes inadequately (myocardial disease); 3) the heart beats too slowly, too rapidly, or irregularly (arrhythmia); 4) the blood vessels offer too great an interference to blood flow (vascular disease); 5) there may be openings between chambers of the left side and right side of the heart (cardiac shunts) or abnormal blood flow between the body and the lungs (extracardiac shunts); 6) there is too little or too much blood compared with the ability of the blood vessels to store that blood; and 7) there is parasitism of the cardiovascular system, such as heartworm disease.

Signs associated with any of these diseases are due either to inadequate blood flow through the organs (signs include tiring easily, weakness, and fainting) or to blood damming up in organs, which causes fluid to leak from blood vessels into tissues (signs include abnormal accumulation of fluid in the lungs or abdomen). A cat showing signs of having too little blood in the tissues to sustain normal function is said to be in low output heart failure. A cat showing signs caused by blood damming up in poorly drained organs is said to be in congestive heart failure. When there is not enough oxygen in the blood, the mucous membranes develop a blue tinge, and often there is an increased concentration of red blood cells.

The heart disease of greatest importance in cats is hypertrophic cardiomyopathy Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy Cats can develop many different cardiovascular diseases. The ones discussed below are the most common. This acquired disease is characterized by a thickening of the heart valves. Degenerative... read more . Probably more than 85% of cats with heart disease have hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. A smaller number of cats will have restrictive cardiomyopathy (in which the heart fills poorly because the walls are stiffer than normal), unclassified cardiomyopathy, or valvular disease.

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