As the countless rave posts, cute videos, and laughing memes on social media show, people love their furry feline friends. But keeping cats happy and healthy is not always easy.
In fact, cats suffer from many of the same health problems as humans, including heart disease.
“We can roughly break down cat heart disease into birth defects and acquired heart defects that they develop over the course of life,” said Dr. John Bonagura, cardiologist and member of the Department of Clinical Sciences at North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine.
Congenital diseases include septal defects or holes in the heart, malformed heart valves, and blood vessel abnormalities. Heart disease in older cats can be related to thyroid disease or high blood pressure.
However, the vast majority of heart disease in cats is caused by cardiomyopathies, which are heart muscle disorders that make it difficult for the heart to pump blood effectively. These conditions can cause heart failure or sudden death, even in younger animals, and are more common in male cats.
Maine Coon and Ragdoll cats are among the breeds prone to inherited cardiomyopathies, but any breed can develop a similar condition. The most common cardiomyopathy, known as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, results in thickening of the left ventricle of the heart.
Cats with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy are at greater risk of fast or irregular heartbeats, heart failure, which causes difficulty breathing, and blood clots. A clot in the legs can cause problems walking or even paralysis, while a clot in the heart can cause a heart attack.
“You don’t have the atherosclerosis that we have,” said Dr. Mark Kittleson, Professor Emeritus in the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California at Davis.
Most cats with cardiomyopathies have no obvious symptoms, according to Kittleson. But if your cat is breathing faster or is having trouble catching its breath, take him to the vet.
“Cats love to hide their clinical symptoms until they are in dire straits and then tip them over the edge,” he said. “One second they’re fine and the next second it’s terrible. It’s an acute, devastating situation.”
There are a limited number of genetic tests available to screen for cardiomyopathies in Maine Coon and Ragdoll cats. In other breeds, veterinarians use an echocardiogram, which uses sound waves to create an image of the heart to make a final diagnosis.
People with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy sometimes need open heart surgery or a heart transplant. However, this is currently not possible with cats that are too small to be connected to a heart-lung machine.
The good news is that some of the medications people take for heart problems also work in cats. For example, cats with cardiomyopathies are often prescribed anticoagulant drugs such as aspirin or clopidogrel. And just like in humans, a common treatment for heart failure is a diuretic.
There are also drugs for heartworm, a potentially life-threatening condition for which there is no specific cure.
“Even two or three worms, which is the average number in cats, can be fatal,” said Bonagura. “Being indoors doesn’t really protect them. So people who live in areas where heartworms are prevalent should also take their cats preventative medication.”
As many cat owners know all too well, getting a kitten to take its medication is not always easy. Bonagura recommended cutting the pills into pieces, putting them in a clear gel cap, and covering them with a little butter.
“Cats are very tasteless and odorless, so if they bite into something bitter, they can be very difficult to treat,” said Bonagura. “Teach them to take things gradually and give them rewards.”
Other possible treatments for cats with heart problems include oxygen therapy, a low-sodium diet, a specific veterinary medicine that can improve heart function called pimobendan, and procedures to remove extra fluid from the chest or abdomen.
While it can be scary when your cat has heart disease and some cases are severe, Bonagura said that proper treatment and home care will increase the chances of them living longer and happier lives.
“Cats are pretty tough,” he added. “You have almost nine lives.”
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