A veterinary checkup is a lot like a human checkup. A doctor examines the patient for overall health and wellness, making sure that all of the major systems are in working order.  As with human physicals, most of the time things are just fine. But, sometimes the examination reveals hidden symptoms, even in patients who seem perfectly healthy. One such symptom is a heart murmur, which can present itself in both healthy and unhealthy animals.  As a caring owner, just how concerned should you be if your pet is diagnosed with a heart murmur?

What is a Heart Murmur?

A heart murmur is an irregular heartbeat. When your veterinarian listens for a heart murmur with a stethoscope, they will typically hear an irregular whooshing sound in between your pet’s regular heartbeat.  That sound is caused by turbulent blood flow in the animal’s heart, and may or may not be cause for concern.

Benign Heart Murmurs

If your pet has a heart murmur, no need to worry just yet! Some heart murmurs are harmless. These are known as benign heart murmurs or functional murmurs. Some pets, especially puppies, may be born with a heart murmur that resolves itself over time.  It is important to work with your veterinarian to determine the severity of the murmur.

When Does a Heart Murmur Indicate a Heart Problem?

A heart murmur may indicate a more serious problem, such as a birth defect, infection, nutritional deficiency, or cardiac disease.  Heart murmurs can be caused by:

  • Infections such as heartworm or endocarditis
  • Heart valve deficiencies or thickenings
  • Heart valve blockages
  • Defects in the heart walls
  • Weakening of the heart muscle
  • Tumors
  • Hereditary defects
  • Anemia

Keep an eye on your pet and contact your vet if you notice any of the following signs of a heart murmur:

  • Coughing
  • Difficult or rapid breathing
  • Exercise intolerance
  • Lethargy
  • Weakness
  • Fainting
  • Gray or blue gums
  • Collapsing
  • Distended abdomen (pot belly)

These types of symptoms point to a more serious condition that may be treatable, especially with early detection.  Most likely, your vet will recommend a battery of diagnostic tests to determine the underlying cause. Tests may include:

  • Chest x-rays
  • Electrocardiogram
  • Echocardiogram, or ultrasound of the heart
  • Blood and urine tests
  • Blood pressure analysis
  • Angiography

Your regular vet may use these test results to make a diagnosis, or he or she may refer you to a veterinary cardiologist for a more specialized diagnosis.  In either case, the vet will work with you to determine the best course of action for your pet.

Treatment Options

The treatment approach for a heart murmur will vary with the cause of the murmur.  If your pet shows no symptoms beyond the murmur, your vet may choose to monitor the condition with more frequent checkups. Treatments can always be added at a later date, if necessary.

If the heart murmur is caused by an infection or anemia, treatment may be as straightforward medication or supplements.  If the murmur is caused by a congenital heart defect, your vet may suggest surgery to correct the condition. If heart disease is the underlying cause, treatments are available to manage the condition and provide your pet with the highest quality of life possible.  Cardiac disease is not a death sentence; diet and medication may be prescribed in order to allow your pet to continue to live at home with you for a long time.

If you suspect your pet has a heart murmur or any other type of heart condition, ask your vet for an exam today.  Early diagnosis and treatment may keep your pet comfortable and a part of your family for years to come.