Symptoms, Prognosis & Life Expectancy for Heart Failure in Dogs

By Lisa McQuerrey

While there is no cure for heart failure in dogs, it’s a progressive condition in most cases. By implementing proper management under the guidance of a veterinarian, you can keep your dog comfortable as the stages of the disease progress. Life expectancy after diagnosis varies based on the health factors contributing to your dog’s condition.

Causes of Heart Failure

Heart disease can develop as a result of congenital issues or as a result of another health problem that puts excess strain on the heart, making it harder than normal to pump blood. For example, degenerative atrioventricular valve disease, prevalent in older small-breed dogs, is characterized by leaky heart valves that allow fluid to build up in the lungs. Older large-breed dogs are susceptible to developing enlarged hearts, also known as dilated cardiomyopathy. Heartworms can also lead to heart failure if left untreated.

Symptoms of Heart Failure

One of the first signs of heart failure is coughing that becomes worse when your dog physically exerts himself or lies down. Your pup may have a hard time getting settled into a comfortable position and may experience labored breathing. Another noticeable sign is fluid retention, which often presents as a swollen abdomen. Dogs with heart failure aren’t getting adequate oxygen, so you may notice a grayish-blue color to his gums.

As heart failure progresses, coughing will become more frequent and more intense. Your dog will become increasingly lethargic and may find it more and more difficult to rise from a down position. Toward the end, symptoms can include fainting from lack of oxygen, decreased appetite and weight loss.

Veterinary Diagnosis

Your vet will use a variety of diagnostic tools to assess your dog’s heart disease. X-rays, echocardiograms and sonograms can help determine how large the heart is, whether valves are leaking and how much fluid is accumulating in the lungs. Blood tests can determine the presence of heartworms and identify other organ systems that many be malfunctioning and putting additional strain on the heart.

Management Options

Vets may prescribe ACE inhibitors, vasodilators and diuretics to help strengthen the heart and reduce fluid buildup so your dog is more comfortable. Your vet might prescribe supplements like antioxidants, vitamin B or the amino acids carnitine or taurine. Positive inotropes may be introduced to improve the strength of heart muscles. Your vet may make recommendations for treating the underlying cause of the heart disease -- for example, eliminating heartworms or surgically repairing a leaky heart valve.

Life Expectancy

A dog with diagnosed heart failure may live several months to several years, depending on the severity of the condition and other health factors. Discuss quality-of-life issues with your vet and, if necessary, create an appropriate end-of-life plan for your pup. Dogs with heart failure require extra attention, regular medication and limited exercise regimens. Your pup will still be able to enjoy quiet times with family but won't be able to run, go for long hikes or chase a ball for long. With continued medication, you can keep him relatively comfortable and pain-free. Dogs with congestive heart failure may eventually pass naturally, but euthanasia may be advised if daily life activities become visibly difficult or painful.