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Facts on Feline Heart Disease: Dr. Joshua Stern of UC Davis

The subtle signs of cardiac disorders in cats can be hard to spot; here's what you need to know.

s.e. smith  |  Feb 18th 2016


February is Heart Month, and hearts are a crucial matter for cats as well as people. Heart disease is a common problem for older cats — though kidney failure is still at the top of the list — and it can be hard to identify in the early stages. Paying attention to the signs of heart problems can help you see that your feline companions live longer, healthier lives, so I talked to Dr. Joshua Stern of the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine about what to watch out for and options for screening and preventative care.

Joshua-Stern-mug

Stern is a member of the faculty on the university’s small animal cardiology service. He focuses on the role of inheritance in the development of heart disease, with the goal of improving genetic testing and expanding treatment options for dogs, cats, and other small animals with heart disease. Davis is among the most renowned veterinary schools in the world, and its work on topics like this is advanced — in fact, Stern performed a rare life-saving procedure on a cat with a congenital heart defect last year in consultation with human and animal heart specialists.

Identifying heart disease in cats

Here’s the bad news: It’s very difficult to identify the early signs of heart disease, because it comes on slowly, and symptoms are often undetectable without advanced imaging equipment. Stern says that “exercise intolerance, elevated respiratory rate or effort, collapse episodes, and general malaise” can all indicate that something is wrong with your cat’s heart. When the heart isn’t functioning right, it has to work harder, just like it does in humans, and these indicators are tips that something is going wrong — or that your cat is struggling with another health problem, so a trip to the vet is definitely in order.

He also notes that veterinarians can spot issues such as heart murmur in a cat who otherwise appears to be healthy, or who hasn’t had a history of health problems. Vets can also detect arrhythmias — in which the heart beats abnormally — or “changes in breathing patterns” during routine examinations, which is another good reason to take your cat in for your regular checkup no matter how much she hates the trip.

Ultimately, though, Stern warns, sometimes cardiac disease is silent in cats until it is quite advanced.

A cat sitting on the pages of a child's sketchbook.

Photo: Laura D’Alessandro, Flickr

Screening and preventative measures

“Screening for cardiac disease in cats is best accomplished by cardiac ultrasound, termed echocardiography,” Stern says, stressing that this is the highest standard for assessing heart health. It’s also noninvasive, and your cat won’t need to be sedated or medicated, though your vet might need to shave the cat’s chest for better visibility. Consider the stylish grooming a free add-on to the service, which can run between $300 and $500. If you’re concerned about the cost, ask your vet for an estimate (and seriously, get pet insurance if you don’t already have it).

In addition to echocardiography, your vet might recommend “electrocardiograms, specialized blood tests called cardiac biomarkers, and chest X-rays” to learn more about what’s going on in your cat’s chest. These screening options tend to be less costly, but also less accurate, and you might want to discuss your cat’s risk factors for heart disease to make decisions about which would be the most appropriate for her needs.

A slightly cross-eyed Siamese

Photo: Amanda Braz, Flickr

Unlike in humans, cats don’t develop heart disease because of their lifestyle, which means that you don’t need to force your cat to go to yoga classes or give up beloved foods. If your cat has heart disease and you’re feeling guilty, don’t — there are no preventative measures available, and you were lucky to catch it in time. Some medications can help extend your cat’s life by reducing the load on her heart.

Cardiomyopathy: The most common feline cardiac disorder

A big heart can be a terrible thing to have.

“The most common form of feline heart disease is hypertrophic cardiomyopathy,” Stern says, referring to a condition in which cells of the heart enlarge and thicken the walls of the ventricles, interfering with the flow of blood. “This disease of the heart muscle is often clinically silent without any indication that a cat might harbor this condition. Ultimately some cats go on to develop severe consequences of this heart muscle disorder, including but not limited to congestive heart failure, thromboembolic complications, and sudden cardiac death.”

A cat with a heart-shaped marking

Photo: agirlnamednee, Flickr

Stern’s work on genetics is particularly important, as it could help clinicians develop better treatment options.

“We are working to understand how the genetics of a cat might impact their response to drug therapies commonly used to treat these conditions,” he says. “We are investigating the genetics of blood clot formation in these cats, prevalence and relevance of cardiac arrhythmias, and response to commonly used medical therapies. Finally, we are very excited about an ongoing project investigating the response to a novel drug therapy that could ultimately reverse the disease progress.”

A relatively small number of cats have congenital heart disorders, whether acquired or genetic. These animals, too, can benefit from genetic research such as that performed by the Davis researchers, as it can help us understand how and why cats develop heart problems — and, someday, how to bettertreat and ultimately prevent them.

Top photo: Found Animals Foundation, Flickr

About the author: s.e. smith is a cat-owned writer, editor, and agitator living in Northern California with felines Loki and Leila. While not mediating cat fights, s.e. explores a wide variety of subjects in writing and elsewhere, in addition to enjoying reading like a fiend and baking like an angel. Follow smith on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.