Congestive Heart Failure in Dogs

Heart disease can be managed with medication
Heart disease can be managed with medication | Source

Congestive heart failure in dogs may be considered a silent disease. Because of the heart's ability to compensate even though weakened, the disease may go unnoticed for many months and in some cases even years. Then, out of the blue, the dog or cat may begin exhibiting worrisome symptoms that will be brought to the attention of the veterinarian.

A normal heart functions very well and is able to provide adequate quantities of blood to all the tissues and organs of the body. In congestive heart failure, the heart is no longer able to pump blood effectively, negatively affecting circulation to the body and causing organ impairment. Liver, kidneys, lungs, and other vital organs will ultimately be affected as well.


The causes of congestive heart failure may be various. The pet may have been born with a heart defect, in which case, the condition may be considered congenital. The presence of heartworms in the dog's heart may cause sufficient damage to cause heart failure. Toy- and small-breed dogs in general are prone to chronic valvular disease, which may ultimately cause congestive heart failure. Large- and giant-breed dogs on the other hand, have a tendency to develop cardiomyopathy, which also may cause failure of the heart organ.


Symptoms may be moderate and in some cases barely noticeable at the dieases's early stages. The affected pet may appear to be more tired than usual upon exertion. A dog may pant more during walks, require a break, or come home more tired than usual, breathing fast and panting. A cough may appear as well during exertion. However, as the disease advances, the pet may cough during the night a few hours after the pet lays down to sleep. This is due to fluid pooling in the lungs because of the heart's inability to work efficiently. Also the dog may appear restless prior to going to sleep, pacing around and acting uncomfortable.

These symptoms may be subtle, and, since congestive heart failure appears often in senior pets, they are easily confused as normal cases of aging. Once the disease advances, more specific symptoms may arise and the pet may refuse to eat, lose weight, and breathe rapidly. Also, because the heart does not function properly, fluids will accumulate in the legs (leg edema).

When the left ventricle of the heart has halted from functioning, the dog will cough up a pink, bubbly fluid, a condition known as pulmonary edema. Fluids will also tend to leak in the abdomen, causing a condition called ascites, and in the chest, causing a condition known as pleural effusion. Affected pets will experience swelling in the abdomen, chest, and legs. A pet at the end stages of heart failure will have labored breathing and sit in a characteristic position with the head extended and elbows spread apart. Because circulation of blood is severely impaired, the gums will be bluish-gray. The pet may collapse.


The veterinarian will inspect the pet, listen to the heart and lungs, and order some specific tests. A heartworm test may be run via blood sample to rule out heartworm disease. Chest x-rays or an echocardiogram may be ordered. The pet's blood pressure may be monitored.


Affected pets will be prescribed diuretics to remove excessive fluids and reduce the workload of the heart. If pleural effusion is present, a procedure called thoracocentesis may be required. Such a procedure consists of inserting a needle into the chest cavity and draining out some fluid. Nitroglycerin may be prescribed to act as vasodilators. If there are arrhythmia, medications such as Digitalis may be prescribed. A special diet low in salt is required. Most commercial pet foods have high levels of sodium. Therefore, prescription diets may be required such as Hill's H/d Purina CV or Royal Canin EC. Potassium supplements are often prescribed because some diuretics tend to lower potassium levels.


When treated early, supportive care may prolong the pet's life, even by years. Dogs will be able to lead a more comfortable life. However, routine check ups will be required to monitor effectively the condition.

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Comments 15 comments

patty  6 years ago

This was very helpful and easy for a concerned lay person to comprehend. Thank you.

jt 6 years ago

this was very helpful...thanks

Maria Cecilia profile image

Maria Cecilia 6 years ago from Philippines

this is very informative made me look at my senior dog and try to observe the symptoms that you mentioned, though I know he is okey, I still want him to have a check up,, He is a bit overweight but the good thing is he walks regularly morning and evening

kelley 5 years ago

Our Min Pin is in final strages of CHF they say it is painless, but to have the bellied tummy and labored b reathing we are torn between letting her go naturally or putting her to sleep, we are beside ourselves......

Tessa 5 years ago

Kelly, our cat just died of CHF yesterday. Except it was very sudden and unexpected. He was doing BETTER. His heartrate was good, his respiratory rate was good, he even was eating and playing. It was like he was never ill. And then it happened.

IF we would have had warning that he was really, really sick, we would have put him to sleep. It was fast, but he looked miserable. When he died, he was pale, he lossed his bowels, he was gasping, and then finally coughing up blood until he let go of life. If you know he's getting very ill and he has little quality of life left, put her to sleep to spare her of that kind of death.

Susan Stevenson 5 years ago

My dog mama has no been new to our family as of a year ago, she was a stray and we could tell she had just had baby's. so we took her in not knowing that she had been a new mommy. so we named her mama, she had just started coughing about three months after we found her, it was occasional but not often. We took her to the vet and they told us she was too loose a couple of pounds and i thought it was kennel cough but no way i was wrong, they gave me antibiotics and they cough went away for awhile but then came back but worse then ever, she has excessive drool on her chest she is alittle over weight, and she has very heavy breathing, & is alittle more tired then usual but i can't really offord another vet visit, so what should i do? Is it Congestive Heart Failure! i'm consitering just putting her down. i don't know her life history. but i love her and it scares me! HELP!

Beatriz 5 years ago

HI I too was devastated when I had to put my loving dog to sleep it was the hardest thing I have ever done. I know I did the right thing he was suffuring to much he was 10 years old he also had CHF. was breathing to fast I had him on meds but was not working anymore I loved my dog to much to see him suffer. I miss him dearly but know that he is not suffering any more. People don't wait till the last min love your dog and let him go.

Lisa 5 years ago

I agree with the above comment. Love you pet enough to know when to let him go. Just yesterday I had to put my beloved dog to sleep,hardest thing I've ever had to do. He had CHF. His first attack was 2 months ago, almost put he down but opted to see if he would bounce back and he did. He was like his old self for those 2 months playing and running around, but he started coughing again brought him to the hospital that was treating him they did a chest x-ray and they said he was ok that the coughing was due to his heart getting bigger and pressing on his trachea but within an hour he started coughing up blood and I knew that it was his time. It happened so fast I always wonder if I would know when the time was here and like I have read before I did know . His took his last breath about 2:20 pm with me holding

Silvia 4 years ago

I don't know what to do. My dog is coughing all day, non stop. She has an enlarged heart and a heart murmur and is 14-1/2 years old. Other than that she acts normal. The Vet gave her antibiotics, then a cortisone shot, but nothing helped. How do I know if she's suffering and when to put her to sleep??

alexadry profile image

alexadry 4 years ago from USA Author

Silvia, I would let the vet know and see if he/she has any other options. Is she on any heart medications? I have a hub about a dog's quality of life that can perhaps help, best wishes.

Paulart profile image

Paulart 4 years ago from 2510 Warren Avenue Cheyenne,Wyoming 82001

Very nice information is given on hub regarding congestive heart failure in dogs.

bill 2 years ago

I just found out about my pup having chf I am absolutely destroyed inside and so is my father. I cannot stand to see him like this and am in tears uncontrollably. Its nice to hear from people that have had this feeling. As you all know I am doing as much info chasing as I can and can only hope that he knows we are trying our best I wish u all the best of life has to offer losing a pet is a pain no one should have to feel thank you for your comments and please give my dog chico your best.

alexadry profile image

alexadry 2 years ago from USA Author

Sending Chico best wishes, I hope a solution can be found so to buy him more time with you.

Pamela Cook 7 weeks ago

My little dog has been on meds for a year and this week got worse set up time to put him to sleep but it wasn't till next week. Now he's taken turn for the worse and I can't get ahold of any vet in our small community. I called animal control because the sheriffs office said they could put him down but due to the holiday they won't be back till Tues. I should have not waited so long and now he's suffering. It's so hard to know when to put them down. It breaks my heart that I waited so long. But he was eating and drinking and I just thought he wouldn't take such a turn for the worse.

alexadry profile image

alexadry 7 weeks ago from USA Author

Oh, Pamela, that must be devastating to go through. It's so terrible when there are holidays. Wondering if you can travel to en emergency vet in some bigger town that is opened 24/7 or see if some mobile vet is available or a vet working for a shelter. Please don't blame yourself, as you said, it's very difficult to predict things and we can only do the best we can. I will be keeping you in my thoughts and prayers.

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