Signs of Heart Failure in Cats

Signs of Heart Failure in Cats

Our feline companions hold a special place in our hearts. And it’s up to us to keep their hearts healthy and functioning as they should. But what does that really mean? If faced with signs of heart failure in cats, would you know what to do?

No pet parent wants to imagine such a scenario. But understanding the signs of heart failure in cats and the actions you should take can help you prepare for the worst…and even prevent it. In this article, you’ll learn how to recognize symptoms of feline heart failure and steps you can take if you’re concerned about your cat’s heart health.

What is Heart Failure in Cats?

Heart failure can be a scary diagnosis for any cat parent to hear. And what makes it even more frightening is that, in many cases, it may seem so sudden, as if the condition developed overnight.

That’s because cats often hide signs of illness, and heart conditions are no exception. As a result, heart issues in cats often go undiagnosed until the disease reaches an advanced stage. 

When operating properly, a cat’s heart tirelessly circulates blood through their body. The right side of the heart moves oxygen-poor blood to the lungs for re-oxygenation, and the left side pumps the oxygen-rich blood to the body’s organs and muscles. In addition, this vital, four-chambered muscle plays a crucial role in regulating heart rate and maintaining blood pressure.

In the simplest terms, heart failure in cats occurs when the amount of blood being pumped by the heart does not meet the demands of the body.  

Heart Failure vs. Congestive Heart Failure

If undetected and untreated, heart failure will eventually progress into Congestive Heart Failure (CHF). This is when the heart is pumping so poorly that fluid begins to build up in the lungs, abdomen, or limbs. This is a serious condition that requires immediate medical intervention.

What Causes Heart Failure in Cats?

The best way to protect your cat from heart failure is to prevent the conditions that cause it from developing in the first place. So let’s take a look at the conditions that can lead to heart failure in cats. 

The most common cause of feline heart failure is heart disease in cats, which can be either congenital (meaning your cat is born with a heart defect or abnormality), or acquired later in life, such as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), which affects 10-15 percent of all cats. (1)

Cat heart failure can also be caused by diet, genetics, hypertension (high blood pressure), circulatory issues, infections, inflammation, or a combination of these factors. 

Identifying and treating these conditions early can help slow or prevent feline heart failure. But that is not always an option, especially if your cat is an expert at concealing their symptoms. That’s why it is so important for pet parents to be able to recognize the signs of heart failure in cats, so you can obtain vital veterinary support before it’s too late.

7 Signs of Heart Failure in Cats

Regardless of your cat’s heart health history, pet parents should always keep an eye out for these 7 signs of heart failure in cats:

  1. Coughing and Labored Breathing – One of the most common signs of heart failure in cats is persistent coughing or labored breathing. This occurs as fluid accumulates in the lungs, making it harder for your cat to breathe. Related symptoms include wheezing, gagging, or having a raspy breath.
  2. Weakness or Exercise Intolerance – Heart failure can deplete your cat’s energy reserves. If your typically active and playful cat becomes lethargic, sleeps more than usual, or is short of breath even when at rest, it could be a sign that their heart is struggling to pump blood effectively.   
  3. Restlessness and Hiding – On the other extreme, some cats with heart failure may appear restless or anxious. They might hide in unusual places, as if seeking a quiet and safe spot, or experience restless sleep. These behavior changes can indicate discomfort or unease due to poor heart function.
  4. Poor Appetite and Weight Loss – Reduced appetite and unexplained weight loss are signs of various health problems in cats, including heart failure. Cats with heart issues might eat less due to nausea, shortness of breath, or a reduced ability to taste their food.
  5. Swollen Abdomen or Limbs – Fluid retention, known as edema, is a common consequence of heart failure. You might notice your cat’s abdomen or limbs becoming distended. This happens when the heart can no longer effectively move fluids throughout the body, so they pool in the extremities.
  6. Pale or Bluish Gums and Tongue – Cats with heart issues may have poor circulation, leading to pale or bluish gums and tongue. Checking your cat’s gum color is a simple way to assess their overall health. If you notice a significant change, it’s time to consult your vet.
  7. Fainting or Collapsing Episodes – In severe cases, cats with advanced heart failure might experience syncope, also known as fainting or collapsing episodes. These occur when the heart can’t supply enough oxygen-rich blood to the brain. If your cat loses consciousness, seek immediate veterinary care.

Cat Heart Failure Symptoms: Next Steps

Now that you know what signs to watch out for, here are some helpful tips for monitoring your cat and what to do if you notice symptoms of cat heart failure. 

Observing your cat for signs of heart failure is a good first step. However, sometimes, it’s hard to tell for sure whether you’re detecting a sign of cardiac failure or some other health issue. So it’s a good idea to keep a log of things like changes in weight, body condition score, activity level, or appetite.

It doesn’t have to be anything elaborate. Simply jotting down information on a calendar or in a notebook can help you identify patterns so you can discuss them with your veterinarian.

Of course, some signs, such as lethargy and swollen belly, can also accompany conditions like obesity or even aging. Still, when it comes to heart health, it’s always worth raising your concerns with your veterinarian. It’s much better to rule out serious conditions, rather than assume it’s not serious and turn out to be wrong.

Another easy way to monitor your cat for signs of heart failure is to measure your pet’s resting respiratory rate (RRR) at home. If your cat is healthy, they will normally take between 15 to 30 breaths per minute while at rest or sleeping. However, increased respiratory rate in cats can be an early indicator of heart issues. 

So the next time you are resting calmly on the couch with your cat, watch the rise and fall of their chest. (Note, your cat should not be purring, since that can impact their respiratory rate.) Each rise and fall equals one breath, so if you consistently count more than 30 breaths per minute, contact your veterinarian.

When to Contact Your Veterinarian

If you notice any signs that could indicate your cat might have compromised heart function, it’s smart to make an appointment with your veterinarian right away. They will do a full exam including checking your pet’s weight, listening to their heart and lung sounds, and examining the rest of their body for any signs of underlying illness or abnormalities. 

Your vet may also want to conduct diagnostic testing, which could include bloodwork, electrocardiogram (EKG), and/or radiographs (X-rays) to detect enlargement of the heart muscle or fluid around the heart.

Because heart failure in cats is a condition that often goes unnoticed until it’s in advanced stages, things can go downhill quickly. Watching out for signs of feline heart failure and raising your concerns with your veterinarian as early as possible could impact your cat’s prognosis and overall quality of life. So stay alert. Your furry friend’s health and longevity depend on it!

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