Just like humans, it is common for cats to suffer from congestive heart failure. In this post, the vets at Barton Heights Veterinary Hospital share some of the common causes, symptoms, and treatment options for cats with congestive heart failure.

What is congestive heart failure in cats?

Congestive heart failure (CHF) is the inability of the heart to pump enough blood to the body. As a result, blood begins to back up into the lungs, and fluid builds up in the chest, abdomen, or both. This causes the heart and lungs to constrict even more, limiting oxygen flow throughout the body. There are numerous causes of CHF in cats, but the two most common are as follows:

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

Clinical signs of CHF vary depending on whether the cat has left- or right-sided heart failure.

Right-Sided Congestive Heart Failure (RS-CHF)

This happens when a heart contraction causes some blood from the right ventricle to leak into the right atrium rather than being pushed through the lungs and oxygenated. As a result, the main circulation system becomes clogged with blood, and fluid builds up in the abdomen, interfering with proper organ function. Excess fluid may also accumulate in the limbs, causing swelling known as peripheral edema.

Left-Sided Congestive Heart Failure (LS-CHF)

When the heart contracts, blood from the left ventricle leaks back into the left atrium via the mitral valve rather than being pumped into the body's systemic circulation. This results in left-sided heart pressure overload. Fluid leaks into the lungs' tissue, causing swelling known as pulmonary edema, which causes coughing and difficulty breathing.

What causes congestive heart failure in cats?

Cats can develop congestive heart failure due to a variety of factors. It is most commonly caused by hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a condition in which the walls of the heart thicken, but it can also be caused by thyroid disease, high blood pressure, or birth defects, among other things. Congestive heart failure can affect cats of any age, breed (though the Maine Coon is most commonly associated with it), or gender, but it is most common in middle-aged to older cats.

CHF can also develop in a heart that's been weakened by other heart conditions, so it's essential to do what you can to prevent heart disease from occurring in your pet, including preventing obesity and providing heartworm prevention.

Symptoms of Congestive Heart Failure in Cats

The most common symptom of congestive heart failure in cats is difficulty breathing. Other symptoms can include:

  • Coughing
  • Lethargy
  • Weight loss
  • Abdominal bloating (due to fluid accumulation)
  • Loss of appetite
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of consciousness

If you notice any of these symptoms, you should have your cat checked by your vet without delay.

How to Diagnose Congestive Heart Failure in Cats

Make sure to describe all of your cat's symptoms to your vet. They will want to know what your cat eats, what medications and supplements they may be taking, and if they are currently on heartworm protection. The vet will listen to your cat's chest and may want to run some diagnostic tests, including:

  • Blood and urine test
  • Chest X-rays
  • EKG 
  • Ultrasound 
  • Heartworm antigen test
  • Holter monitor 

Treating Congestive Heart Failure in Cats

Your cat will most likely be given several medications. A diuretic is used to remove excess fluid from the lungs and body, an angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitor is used to improve clinical symptoms and increase survival in cats with CHF, and a vasodilator is used to relax the body's blood vessels. In some cases, a drug known as a positive inotrope may be prescribed to increase the force of heart contractions and improve blood flow.

If your cat struggles to breathe, your vet may administer oxygen therapy until he's able to breathe adequately on his own. Depending on how much oxygen is needed, this might require hospitalization.

End-Stage Congestive Heart Failure in Cats

The symptoms of end-stage congestive heart failure in cats can include:

  • A chronic cough or wheezing
  • Lack of appetite and nausea
  • An increased heart rate
  • Confusion
  • Dyspnea – shortness of breath
  • Swellings caused by trapped excess fluids
  • Inactivity

Unfortunately, this stage of congestive heart failure might be when you have to euthanize your cat. Be sure to speak with your veterinarian about all treatment options first.

Congestive Heart Failure In Cats Life Expectancy

Make sure to bring your cat for regular visits with your vet and stick with your treatment plan. Unchecked heart problems can make things harder on your cat and even shorten their life. With the right treatments, care, and monitoring, your cat can live a long, comfortable life.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for CHF at the moment, and treatment focuses on improving quality of life. Medication advances have vastly improved the overall prognosis for this condition. Home care and lifestyle management can help to increase survival time from months to years. The sooner this condition is identified and treatment begins, the better your cat's chances of living longer.

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 cat showing symptoms of congestive heart failure? Contact Barton Heights Veterinary Hospital for an appointment with our board-certified veterinary cardiologist.