Congestive heart failure is a common health problem seen in senior cats. Find out how to recognize it and what you can do to help them.

Heart disease, leading to heart failure, is a common health problem in older cats, though young cats can have heart problems, too. Younger cats tend to suffer from congenital malformations (inherited birth defects), while senior cats develop heart disease as they age.

Causes of Congestive Heart Failure in Cats

Cardiomyopathies are the most common cause of congestive heart problems in cats. These are diseases of heart muscle, with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy being the leading cause of heart failure. The muscle of the left ventricle of the heart becomes so thickened that it can no longer efficiently pump blood throughout your cat's body. There are a variety of causes for this type of congestive heart failure.

Maine Coon cat outside
Credit: Peter König / Getty

Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy can be a result of a genetic predisposition in some cat breeds, especially in Maine Coons, Persians, Ragdolls, and some American shorthair cats. Breeders of these purebred cats can do screening to have their male and female parent cats, called sires and dams, tested for this problem.

Other illnesses can contribute to cat congestive heart failure as well, including hyperthyroidism, high blood pressure (which could be secondary to a thyroid problem or a kidney problem), and heartworm disease.

Symptoms of Cat Congestive Heart Failure

Signs of cat congestive heart failure can be tricky to notice. Your cat may simply be less active or she may show problems breathing, especially after activity. This is due to fluid backup in the lungs from the poor pumping capability of her heart. Cats don't tend to have the "cardiac cough" commonly noted in dogs with heart failure, however. She may suddenly be unable to walk using her rear legs. That is due to a blood clot blocking the flow to her hind legs from her aorta.

Other signs of heart disease could be:

  • Decrease in appetite
  • Weight loss (sometimes with a distended belly from fluid buildup)
  • Difficulty sleeping and lying down, so she tends to sit or shift frequently
  • Sudden collapse or fainting
  • Fast breathing

Diagnosing and Treating Feline Heart Disease

If your cat is in acute distress, such as open mouth panting, or if her hind limbs appear paralyzed, she needs to go to a veterinary clinic immediately. She will be given oxygen therapy, injectable diuretics to try and remove excess fluids, and anticoagulants to thin the blood and help prevent blood clots. Diagnosis will involve any combination of radiographs (x-rays), an ultrasound of the heart, and an EKG.

Once a diagnosis is made, your vet will try to work out a "cocktail" of medications to ease the work of her diseased heart and treat the heart failure. This cocktail will include diuretics, which remove excess fluid, along with drugs to help your cat's heart beat more efficiently. If your cat is resistant to being medicated, you may choose to simply give her diuretics and hope the fluid removal will make her comfortable for a while. Multiple pills a day may stress her out.

The Future for Cats With Heart Failure

Sadly, heart failure is not a health problem that can be "cured". It is progressive and the goal of treatment is to slow the progress, try to control the disease, and give your cat more quality time. The life expectancy of a cat with full-blown heart failure is not long, so you want to make her as comfortable as possible for her time remaining. Most cats with congestive heart failure will live 6 to 12 months.

If a heart condition such as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is detected early on, treatment and management can mean a close-to-normal lifetime for your cat. Unfortunately, cats tend to hide their illnesses very well and often heart failure is pretty far along before it is diagnosed, making it all the more important to schedule regular checkups with your cat's veterinarian.