Dogs with congestive heart failure (CHF) experience a multitude of discomforting symptoms. They may become fatigued more quickly, breathe rapidly, develop a cough, and lose interest in eating. Medication prescribed by your veterinarian will likely be the focal part of your dog’s treatment plan, but there are also things you may be able to do at home to help ease some of the symptoms. In this article, the experts weigh in on how to comfort a dog with congestive heart failure.
How to Keep a Dog With Congestive Heart Failure Comfortable
Before we get into our tips, it’s important to note that if your dog is exhibiting any unusual symptoms or is in distress, you should contact your veterinarian right away.
Additionally, remember that your dog is an individual with varying medical needs, so not all of these tips may be a good fit. Check with your veterinarian before incorporating any of them, especially in the case of diet and supplements.
Now, let’s go over some of the ways to keep a dog with congestive heart failure comfortable. We spoke with several veterinarians, and here’s what they had to say.
Work With a Veterinary Cardiologist
Veterinarians recommend that dogs with CHF (or any heart condition) be seen by a board-certified veterinary cardiologist, when possible.
“This is especially true early in the condition to get a clear idea of the path you will be going on with your dog,” says Dr. Jerry Klein, chief veterinary officer for the American Kennel Club, based in New York City. “With continued monitoring and guidance, veterinary cardiologists can work with your veterinarian and give the best advice on the management and prognosis of the patient, including proper and appropriate nutrition, medications, and exercise for that individual dog.”
Follow a Strict Medication Protocol
To comfort a sick dog with congestive heart failure, veterinarians say that keeping them on a regular medication schedule is the most important thing you can do.
“Give their medications reliably and work closely with your vet to determine the most appropriate medication regimen and veterinary visits for your individual pet,” says Dr. Mandi Shearhart, a veterinarian with the NWA Veterinary Programs at Best Friends Animal Society in Fayetteville, Arkansas. “Thankfully we have a variety of medications that allow us to slow the progression of heart failure and keep pets comfortable by controlling the fluid buildup that happens with CHF.”
If you accidentally forget to give your dog a dose, don’t guesstimate or panic. “Contact a veterinarian before redosing to lower risk of overdosing,” says Dr. Audrey Weaver, a partner doctor who works at Heart + Paw in their Glen Mills, Pennsylvania, location.
Manage Your Dog’s Weight
Extra weight puts increased pressure on the cardiovascular system, so keeping your pup at an appropriate size is important, says Dr. Weaver. “Avoid too many treats or people food, which can be high in sodium and may lead to weight gain,” says Dr. Gabrielle Fadl, director of Primary Care at Bond Vet, based in New York City.
Ask your veterinarian about your dog’s ideal weight and caloric needs. To determine your dog’s weight between veterinary appointments, a dog weight chart or a body condition tool can be helpful.
Switch to a Dog Diet That Promotes Heart Health
A diet is another potentially important way to comfort a sick dog with congestive heart failure. Diet recommendations will vary based on your dog’s health needs. “Prescription diets for heart health are helpful for some dogs. Other dogs might need to balance their diet for both heart and other health conditions,” says Dr. Fadl.
Your veterinarian may recommend a dog diet lower in sodium. According to the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, keeping sodium usage in check helps control blood pressure and reduce fluid build-up . When fluids build up near the lungs or chest, it becomes more difficult to breathe. Reducing your dog’s sodium intake by too much, however, can exacerbate your dog’s condition, so it’s essential to contact your veterinarian for guidance with this.
For management of multiple concurrent conditions, a consult with a Veterinary Nutritionist can allow you to choose or design a diet that specifically meets your pet’s needs.
Ask Your Veterinarian if Supplements Might Be Beneficial
Your veterinarian may recommend a multivitamin to help maintain potassium and magnesium levels, says Dr. Weaver. This is because low levels of these minerals can cause irregular heartbeats.
According to the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce inflammation and oxidative stress, stabilize irregular heartbeats, and maintain stable blood pressure levels.  They can also help in preventing muscle wasting, a common symptom in dogs with congestive heart failure. Antioxidants like vitamins C and E can help prevent damage from chemicals (in this case, c species), that increase in dogs with congestive heart failure. Not all supplements are created equally, so consult your veterinarian for recommendations on brands.
Monitor Your Dog’s Symptoms
Watching for changes in your dog’s symptoms and behavior is an important way to comfort a sick dog with congestive heart failure, veterinarians say. “It is very helpful to keep a daily log or diary to track your dog’s sleeping respiratory rate, appetite, activity level, [and] coughing episodes,” notes Dr. Shearhart.
Other signs to watch for include labored breathing, tiring upon exercise, and pale or bluish mucous membrane color, which is usually best detected on the dog’s gums, according to Dr. Klein. (Some dogs with CHF also experience an increase in thirst and urination.)
“Act on these signs as soon as possible by contacting their veterinarian or taking their dog to the nearest emergency or critical care facility,” advises Dr. Klein. “You know your dog best. If something doesn’t seem right, contact a veterinarian at once.”
Dr. Weaver also recommends performing periodic in-home respiratory rate monitoring. “Ask a veterinarian or veterinary support staff member for a demo on how to obtain a respiratory rate at home.” Keeping a daily log of their resting respiratory rate allows you to get your dog help before it becomes an emergency.
Moderate Your Dog’s Physical Activity
Dogs with congestive heart failure are unable to pump an adequate amount of blood to the rest of the body. This makes physical activity more difficult and is why veterinarians recommend moderating your dog’s exercise protocol.
This doesn’t mean, however, that your dog can’t exercise at all. “In most cases, some physical activity can still be a good thing. However, it’s easy to overdo it. Talk to your vet about ways for your dog to safely do some activities like walking or playing,” says Dr. Fadl. It’s not only about how much activity, but also what type and when.
Avoid Weather Extremes
Be aware of the climate your pup is being exposed to, “even if only for a short period of time,” says Dr. Klein. “Hot, humid weather can aggravate dogs already having breathing issues, such as dogs with heart disease.”
Carefully Follow All Your Veterinarian’s Recommendations
To best comfort a dog with congestive heart failure, work closely with your veterinarian. This includes maintaining a strict medication schedule, as well as keeping all veterinary appointments.
“This is a progressive disease that will likely need many follow up visits and medication adjustments to keep your dog comfortable,” explains Dr. Shearhart.
Prepare for Emergencies
While not specifically about comforting your pup, Dr. Fadl has a tip that can help pet parents handle stressful situations related to CHF.
Seconds can count, especially when congestive heart failure has progressed. And when you’re stressed, the last thing you want is to frantically search for phone numbers and addresses. “Keep the locations, contact phone number, and hours of emergency veterinarians posted where you can easily find it,” recommends Dr. Fadl. “Should an emergency happen, you don’t want to waste time searching for this information.”
It’s also important to remember that cardiac emergencies are expensive. Be prepared for an emergency visit and a night in an oxygen chamber to easily cost thousands of dollars.
End-of-Life Planning for Dogs With CHF
Knowing what to do when your dog is ill is not always apparent, especially since each dog’s situation is different. Our tips are designed to help you better navigate this difficult journey.
Use Quality of Life as a Guide
Quality of life is different for every dog. “For some dogs with heart failure, it may reach a ‘breaking point,’ as in a medical emergency where euthanasia is the best option. For other dogs with heart failure, the decision is based on a gradually declining quality of life,” says Dr. Fadl.
This is why keeping a daily log of your dog’s symptoms is such an important tool. “Quality of life can mean keeping track of worsening, uncomfortable symptoms (like coughing or breathing difficulties), as well as noting whether or not your dog can still do the activities they used to love doing,” Dr. Fadl adds.
Lap of Love and the Veterinary Medical Center at Ohio State University offer free online quality of life worksheets if you need them.
Be Ready to Make Tough Decisions
If a dog is suffering and treatment is no longer effective, it may be time to consider humane euthanasia. “When medications are no longer able to control the effects of heart disease and a dog is no longer able to do the most essential thing any living being must be able to do – breathe with ease – the difficult decision of humane euthanasia must be considered,” says Dr. Klein.
Ask for Help
Because they have the experience as well as education, your veterinarian knows best how to comfort a dog with congestive heart failure. Veterinarians can answer questions or address concerns about your dog’s disease, and can help you navigate the end-of-life process. “They can explain what to expect, as well as after-care options such as cremation or burial, so there’s less pressure to make these decisions when the time comes,” says Dr. Fadl. “Some vets even design their practice around end-of-life care and hospice, and they can be a great resource for questions and planning.”
- Diet for Dogs with Heart Disease. (2015, May). Tufts Your Dog. Retrieved from https://www.tuftsyourdog.com/dogfoodandnutrition/diet-for-dogs-with-heart-disease/