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Can Dogs Have Heart Attacks?

Dog getting heart examined
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Heart attacks are common medical emergencies amongst humans. According to the Centers for Disease Control, someone has a heart attack every 40 seconds in the United States. That’s an awful lot of heart attacks! So if heart attacks are so common in humans, can dogs have heart attacks, too? 

Fortunately, heart attacks in dogs are extremely rare events. Even so, it’s still important to be able to recognize a potential heart attack in a dog, as it is a serious and life threatening condition. 

Read on to learn about heart attacks in dogs, what to do during a dog heart attack, what to expect if your dog has a heart attack, and how you can prevent a heart attack in your dog. 

What Happens During a Heart Attack?

The medical term for a heart attack is “myocardial infarction.” Heart attacks occur when a vessel that brings blood to the heart is blocked. These vessels are called coronary arteries. They are usually blocked by an accumulation of cholesterol or fat, but other substances can also cause a full or partial blockage. This process is known as atherosclerosis. 

When the blood flow to the heart is blocked, the heart doesn’t receive enough oxygen, and the heart muscle begins to die. The heart is then unable to properly perform its normal function of pumping blood to the rest of the body. 

Heart attacks happen suddenly or acutely. This is different from cardiac disease or heart failure which are chronic diseases that progress over time. Usually, in the case of chronic disease, the heart reaches a breaking point where it can no longer keep up with the demands of the body. These episodes are sometimes mistakenly referred to as heart attacks, but are not the same. 

Can Dogs Have Heart Attacks?

Yes, dogs can have heart attacks, but they are very, very rare events. However, it is believed that due to a year-over-year increase in dog obesity, heart attacks in dogs may be becoming more common. 

There are also other serious cardiac conditions, such as cardiac arrhythmias which are abnormal heartbeat patterns, that can cause symptoms very similar to a human heart attack in dogs. 

Heart attacks can happen in dogs of any breed or size. Similar to humans, it is believed that older dogs are more likely to suffer from heart attacks than younger dogs. 

Causes of Dog Heart Attacks

There are several causes and risk factors for heart attacks in dogs, such as: 

Atherosclerosis. As mentioned earlier, this is the buildup of cholesterol and plaque in the arteries. This is rare in dogs, but is the cause of a “true” heart attack.

Obesity. While obesity does not cause a heart attack directly, excess weight leads to higher blood pressure and cholesterol, which both increase a dog’s likelihood for having a heart attack.

Nephrotic syndrome. Kidney failure or damage leads to a loss of protein, which can lead to blood clot formation. A blood clot that forms inappropriately in the arteries can block blood flow to the heart and lead to a heart attack.

Tumors. Masses or tumors growing on or around a dog’s heart and/or arteries can impede blood flow to the heart.

Hypothyroidism. An inadequate amount of thyroid hormone in dogs causes a slower heart beat and metabolism, weight gain and high cholesterol, and poor blood flow, all of which can lead to a heart attack.

Vasculitis. This is inflammation of the blood vessels and is usually a secondary symptom of other disease processes like autoimmune disorders or infection. Inflamed blood vessels are narrower and can increase a dog’s likelihood of having a heart attack.

Endocarditis. Inflammation of the inner lining of the heart’s chambers and valves is called endocarditis, and most commonly occurs due to a bacterial infection. This is seen most often in dogs with severe dental disease

Pre-existing cardiac disease. Chronic heart disease and heart failure in dogs is much more common than heart attacks. However, a dog with a weaker heart is more susceptible to a heart attack than dogs without pre-existing cardiac disease. 

Intense fear or stress. In response to sudden fear or distress, the body releases a large amount of adrenaline as part of the fight or flight response. This leads to a sudden increase in heart rate and blood pressure, which can cause arrhythmias, constriction of blood vessels, and even heart muscle spasm, all of which can cause the heart to suddenly fail or decline. Fortunately, this is extraordinarily rare in humans and even less common in dogs. 

Signs of a Dog Heart Attack

Dogs experiencing a heart attack will display one or more of the following signs:

  • Sudden collapse
  • Weakness
  • Fast heart rate
  • Irregular heart rate
  • Abnormal breathing
  • Heavy panting that is not exercise or heat induced
  • Difficulty standing
  • Lethargy/exercise intolerance
  • Fever
  • Vomiting
  • Tilted head
  • Stiff forelimbs

What to Do During a Dog Heart Attack

If you suspect your dog is having a heart attack, the most important thing to do is remain calm. Your dog can sense your fear and anxiety which can make theirs even worse and exacerbate clinic signs. 

Instead, try your best to keep your dog calm to help slow their heart and make it easier for them to breathe. Wrapping your dog in a blanket and speaking softly and slowly to them can be soothing and help them calm down.

Next, contact a veterinarian right away and follow their guidance. Most likely, they will advise you to bring your dog to the clinic immediately, as the sooner your dog is stabilized, the greater chance they will recover. 

Do not attempt CPR on your dog unless you have been properly trained or a veterinarian advises you to do so. Incorrectly performed or unnecessary CPR can cause more harm than good. If your dog has collapsed and is unconscious, seek veterinary care right away.

Dog Heart Attack Recovery

Dog getting electrocardiogram

Dogs who have suffered a heart attack or any other cardiac event often require hospitalization and supportive care for several days regardless of the cause. 

Your veterinary team will likely need to run a series of tests such as blood work, an echocardiogram, and an electrocardiogram to determine the cause of your dog’s heart attack and how to best help them recover moving forward. In many cases, a dog who experienced a heart attack will likely need both lifestyle modifications such as a better diet and more exercise as well as medications and supplements to help prevent another episode. 

How to Prevent Heart Attacks in Dogs

The best way to prevent a heart attack in a dog is to provide them with a healthy lifestyle. Make sure your dog is eating a complete and balanced diet, and avoid fatty treats like potato chips, french fries, and cheese that can lead to excess cholesterol. 

Keep your dog at a healthy body weight and make sure they receive plenty of exercise to keep their cardiovascular system strong. Omega-3 fatty acid supplements are also great for helping your dog maintain a healthy heart, lower inflammation, and decrease cholesterol in the body.