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What are the last stages of congestive heart failure in dogs?

There are 4 clearly defined stages to congestive heart failure in dogs. Today, our vets at Pacific & Santa Cruz Veterinary Specialists discuss the signs and stages of congestive heart failure, and what to expect when your dog reaches the final stage of this condition. 

What is congestive heart failure in dogs?

Congestive heart failure (CHF) is a term that refers to the heart's inability to pump enough blood to the body. Due to this, blood starts to back up into the lungs and fluid accumulates in the chest, abdomen or both. This lead to further constriction of the heart and lungs, and limits oxygen flow throughout the body. There are many causes of CHF in dogs, but the two most common causes are:

  • Mitral valve insufficiency (MVI), refers to a leaky mitral valve, which is the valve between the left atrium and the left ventricle.
  • Dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) occurs when the heart chambers enlarge and lose their ability to contract.

Signs of CHF vary depending on whether the dog has left- or right-sided heart failure.

What are the signs of congestive heart failure in dogs?

Right-sided congestive heart failure occurs when a heart contraction causes some blood to leak into the right atrium from the right ventricle rather than being pushed through the lungs and becoming oxygenated. As a result, the main circulation system becomes congested with blood, and fluid accumulates in the abdomen, interfering with adequate organ function. Excess fluid might also build up in the limbs and cause swelling.

Left-sided congestive heart failure is the most common type of congestive heart failure in dogs and occurs when blood from the left ventricle leaks back into the left atrium through the mitral valve rather than getting pumped into the body's systemic circulation when the heart contracts. This causes pressure overload to the left side of the heart. Fluid begins to leak into the tissue of the lungs, causing swelling which results in coughing and difficulty breathing.

What is the treatment for congestive heart failure in dogs?

There are a number of medications used to treat congestive heart failure in dogs, including diuretics to remove the excess fluid buildup in the lungs and body, angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors which help improve symptoms, and vasodilators to relax the body's blood vessels. A positive inotrope may also be prescribed to help strengthen the force of contractions in the heart and improve blood flow. Regular trips to the vet for examinations and monitoring are essential.

What are the stages of congestive heart failure in dogs?

There are four stages to the progression of this condition:

Stage 1: Although the condition has taken hold and begun to deteriorate your dog's heart there may not be any noticeable symptoms.

Stage 2: In this stage symptoms such as shortness of breath, panting and lethargy will begin to appear, especially when your pup is playing or exercising. 

Stage 3: Now your dog's symptoms will begin to become more obvious. Even short walks may bring on coughing, wheezing and other noticeable signs of breathing difficulties.

Stage 4: During this final stage of congestive heart failure, your dog's breathing will become difficult even when they are resting. Fluid will likely begin to accumulate in various parts of your pup's body, leading to swollen legs or abdomen, which will make walking difficult and may lead to vomiting.

What are the symptoms of the final stages of congestive heart failure in dogs?

While treatment for congestive heart failure can help to manage the disease and improve your dog's quality of life, at some point your dog will reach stage 4 of the condition.

When your dog is in the end stages of congestive heart disease you will notice that your pup has difficulty breathing even while resting, experiences frequent bouts of coughing, develops bluish-grey color gums, possibly faints when standing and will become reluctant to walk. Your dog will also have difficulties sleeping or resting on their side. Many dogs reach a stage where they prefer to sit upright rather than lay down since an upright position can help to ease breathing.

Sadly, the symptoms of late stage congestive heart failure cannot be well managed in dogs, and once this stage is reached you may wish to speak with your veterinarian about humane euthanasia. While this is a very painful decision to make, many pet parents feel that euthanasia allows their pet to pass peacefully without further suffering.

If your dog has congestive heart failure, be sure to have open and honest discussions with your vet about the progression of your pet's symptoms and prognosis. This can help you to know what to expect and prepare for whatever decision you feel is right for your four-legged family member.

Note: The advice provided in this post is intended for informational purposes and does not constitute medical advice regarding pets. For an accurate diagnosis of your pet's condition, please make an appointment with your vet.

Is your dog showing signs of congestive heart failure? Contact Pacific & Santa Cruz Veterinary Specialists right away to book an examination for your four-legged friend!

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