Although it sounds scary, if your beloved pet has a dog heart murmur it doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to panic!
First, let’s take a look at what they are…….
Heart murmurs are caused problems or defects in your dog’s heart valves. This means that they don’t function normally, and usually have problems closing properly as blood is pumped through the heart chambers.
You might hear these called ‘leaky valves. A hole in the heart (a small opening that connect chambers/arteries which should be separated) can cause the same issue.
When this happens, it results in an abnormal heartbeat, which is heard as an irregularity or unusual rhythm, and called a heart ‘murmur’.
There are different things that can cause this problem, including congenital defects (some breeds are more prone to this than others), heart disease, anemia, high blood pressure, damage from medication or toxins, old age and more.
Murmurs can be present when a puppy is born, or develop at any time during his life. Depending on what is causing them, they range from mild to severe, and can be totally benign or very serious.
When it comes to diagnosis, dog heart murmurs are divided into different grades depending on their severity (including how loud they are). Grade I being those of least concern, and Grade VI being the most dangerous.
- Grades I and II – there are often no other symptoms and your pet is likely to be watched rather than treated, at least at first. Might be seen in very young puppies, or those going through a rapid growth spurt.
- Grades III and IV – a puppy or dog may seem to tire easily, lose his appetite, or have a persistent cough. At this level medication is often recommended and surgical options may be considered.
- Grade V and VI – at this point things get a lot more serious and your dog may seem very unwell. Medication and surgery will most likely be needed, and canine congestive heart failure can develop.
Help, My Puppy Has A Heart Murmur!
Before you get too upset, it’s important to realize that minor heart murmurs in puppies are actually not that unusual.
Often they’re considered a congenital (hereditary) problem and may occur in around 1% of puppies overall.
Some breeds seem to have a higher incidence of cardiac birth defects which result in dog heart murmurs.
For example, Patent Ductus Arteriosus (PDA), a defect in the pulmonary artery, is more often seen in Poodles, Chihuahua, Maltese, Shetland Sheepdogs and other herding breeds such as the German Shepherd and various Collies.
Subvalvular Aortic Stenosis (SAS), a defect of the aortic valve, occurs more frequently in Boxers, Rottweilers, Golden Retrievers, Bernese Mountain Dogs, German Shorthaired Pointers and several other large breeds.
Bulldogs, Schnauzers, many terrier breeds, Beagles and Samoyeds may be predisposed to suffering from Pulmonic Stenosis (another type of defect of the pulmonary valve).
Both PDA and SAS tend to produce a dog heart murmur as a symptom.
Your vet might notice an irregularity in your pups’ heartbeat during a routine check up, or symptoms such as lethargy, coughing, weakness or white/blue gums or tongue may prompt a vet visit that uncovers cardiac problems.
Minor murmurs in puppies tend to earn a ‘wait and see’ type of approach if the pup seems otherwise happy and healthy. This is because many pups outgrow them given time. Short episodes might also appear during particular growth spurts or developmental changes. These are usually short-lived.
Symptoms of a dog heart murmur in puppies
- Poor weight gain, slow growth
- Excessive sleepiness, lack of ‘puppy playfulness’
- Coughing, especially at night or first thing in the morning
- Pale gums/tongue
Heart Murmurs In Older Dogs
A dog heart murmur which develops later in life is usually a result of disease or old age.
It can sometimes be caused by something simple like anemia – and the most common reason for a dog to be anemic is that he/she has a parasitic infection. Worms such as whipworms or hookworms can make a dog anemic.
When it comes to the more serious reasons causes, heart valve disease is the most common culprit. The Mitral valve is often affected and tends to deteriorate with age. It can lead to congestive heart failure and death.
Again some breeds are more prone than others to mitral valve disease and these include many toy and miniature breeds, especially Cavalier King Charles Spaniels.
This condition is usually considered degenerative (ie it’s a condition related to aging), but occasionally it can be caused by an infection that affects the heart even though it may have started elsewhere in the body.
In addition to a heart murmur, the most common symptoms of this type of heart disease in dogs are lethargy and a low-tolerance for exercise (your dog may breathe very rapidly, pant excessively or have difficulty standing after exercise) and have a persistent cough.
The cough happens because the effects of the damaged valve puts pressure on the lungs which slowly fill with fluid.
If you’re the owner of a senior dog I’d suggest checking out this page as it discusses heart problems in older dogs in some detail… Older Dog Heart Problems
Diagnosing Heart Murmurs In Dogs
There are several ways that your vet can use to make a diagnosis of a heart murmur in your dog:
A Physical Exam
The first is to listen to his/her heartbeat through a stethoscope – and this is how most heart murmurs, particularly in puppies, is first noticed.
If you’re not familiar with the sound of a normal canine heartbeat it’s almost impossible to detect the murmur yourself, but the general description of a heart murmur is that it ‘softens’ the precise and regular sound of a normal heart.
The extra turbulence that occurs as the blood flows through the heart may cause a whooshing or hissing sound along with the normal ‘lub-dub’ heartbeat. Some murmurs have even been described as sounding like a washing machine (often indicates PDA).
If your vet notices that your pup/dog has pale or blue-tinged gums, this may also make him consider heart problems.
If your vet hears suspicious noises in your pet’s heart, he will likely take some chest x-rays as the next step in making a diagnosis.
Heart disease often alters the physical shape of the heart (causing certain areas to become enlarged) which is visible on an x-ray.
Also any fluid that has collected in the lungs (as in Mitral Valve Disease) will also be visible.
EKG – Electrocardiogram
This test will show your dogs heartrate and rhythm and can help detect blockages or other abnormalities that can be the cause of a dog heart murmur.
This is basically an ultra-sound procedure and can give veterinarians a very clear picture of what is going on inside your dogs’ heart.
It shows the way each part of the heart contracts, the condition of individual heart valves and major blood vessels and how thick the walls of the heart are. It is a good way for your vet to get an idea of how well your dogs’ heart is performing overall.
Your vet might also want to run some other tests including a blood pressure test and an evaluation of kidney function.
In serious heart murmurs caused by Sub Aortic Stenosis, Mitral Valve Disease or Dilated Cardiomyopathy, the symptoms of the resulting canine congestive heart failure are similar.
The first line of attack in terms of treating dog heart problems is usually to use medication (unless the canine heart murmur is severe enough to warrant immediate surgery).
There are a range of medications that your vet can prescribe, including ACE Inhibitors, Vasodilators, Diuretics, Beta Blockers, Digoxin and various anti-arrythmia drugs.
These all work basically the same way as they do in human heart patients, and are similar in terms of effectiveness.
Any of them can have side effects and your vet will monitor your dog closely if he takes them. In many cases they can cause vomiting, diarrhea or a loss of appetite.
If the medications don’t work, or the dog heart murmur is severe enough to require surgery, there are a couple of options.
It would seem that canine cardiac surgical procedures are more likely to be successful in puppies who have congenital heart problems than those that occur in older, or sick, dogs but only your a trained professional can give your individual dog a prognosis.
There are two surgical options for repairing Patent Ductus Arteriosus in puppies, and the success rate is good. Performing the surgery as early as possible gives the pup the best chance of making a full recovery.
Subvalvular Aortic Stenosis is more difficult to repair surgically, although Balloon Valvuloplasty has been shown to help somewhat in up to 85% of cases, however it has a fairly significant risk attached and between 5 and 10% of dogs may not survive the surgery.
Medications and lifestyle modifications are often the best way to control this condition.
A Pericardiectomy can be performed to drain fluid around the heart that may be putting pressure on it. This often occurs when a dog has a heart tumor, and although a dog heart murmur is rarely a sign of cancer, unusual heart sounds, a rapid but weak heartbeat and an enlarged chest can by symptoms.
How To Keep Your Dog’s Heart Healthy & Strong
Unfortunately you can’t do anything about preventing a congenital dog heart murmur if your pup already has one – but you can take steps to make sure his heart gets the best possible chance of staying healthy and strong.
Also, if you’re buying a puppy, especially if it’s from a breed known to have genetic cardiac conditions, choose a breeder who tests for them and never breed a dog who has a heart problem.
There are some great natural products which support a healthy heart and can even reduce or prevent certain degenerative conditions. ANY puppy or dog can benefit from these!
If you have a puppy or dog with a minor dog heart murmur, or one who is totally healthy (and you want him to stay that way!) there are natural herbal/natural products that you can use as a preventative measure.
They can help strengthen your dogs cardiac and circulatory systems, and improve his immune function. Here are a couple that are worth checking out Resvantage Canine for Dog and Young At Heart for Dog Heart Disease
There are also natural supplements which include certain vitamins and minerals which can help many dogs with heart issues. They DO NOT replace mainstream medications or surgery, but should be used alongside them.
Do remember to tell your vet about any product or supplement you give your dog though, just because something is ‘natural’ it doesn’t mean that it can’t (or won’t) interact with another medication or be inappropriate for your individual dogs’ condition.
Try these online stores for a wide selection of natural products and supplements that can help with a huge range of canine health problems (not just heart disease!)….