The Signs of Congestive Heart Failure in Dogs

The Signs of Congestive Heart Failure in Dogs

6th October 2022 by

This is a hard one for me to write but I thought it might be useful to share our experience with heart failure in dogs so others know what to look out for. Our darling small lurcher Zeaver started coughing in August and was treated for kennel cough with some pain relief followed by
anti-biotics. We weren’t aware of her being exposed to kennel Cough but it seemed to be a reasonable diagnosis given the symptoms. After 4 weeks or so she was still not right, breathing heavily and still coughing. We did a heart scan only to find that she has Congestive Heart Failure which basically means she will die without medication.

Congestive Heart Failure

Heart disease is present in around 15% of dogs in the UK, affecting 75% of senior dogs. This can progress to heart failure, often called Congestive Heart Failure or CHF. It is a progressive disease which, without veterinary intervention, will slowly worsen; dogs do not have a sudden heart attack as people can.

The heart is a muscular pump with four chambers which pumps blood to the lungs to pick up oxygen and then around the rest of the body to deliver that oxygen and pick up waste products. The heart can compensate for disease for a while but heart failure will follow when the heart
cannot compensate any longer and the pump is not sending enough blood around the body. There are a variety of medicines that can be used to support the heart and keep dogs with heart disease comfortable for sometimes quite long periods of time.

Symptoms of Congestive Heart Failure

Reduced Exercise Tolerance

This means pets that are no longer able to walk or run the distances they once could. Often, dogs with heart disease will stop
unexpectedly for rests on walks and refuse to go on as they usually would. This is much more noticeable in warm or hot weather.

Shortness of Breath

As heart disease progresses, the number of breaths per minute a dog takes when relaxed and resting will gradually increase. Typically, it should be between 15-30 breaths per minute – so more than this or a change to what is normal for your dog is a flag to have them investigated. Zeaver was close to 40 breaths per minute at time of diagnosis.


Dogs with heart problems, as with Zeaver, will often cough. This is usually a soft, non-productive cough, which is often worse in the evenings. The cause of the cough is either the retention of fluid in the lungs or heart enlargement, which often accompanies heart failure. The enlarged
heart actually bumps the trachea (windpipe), causing some dogs to cough when it is beating hard.


Dogs in heart failure will sometimes faint if they suddenly become excited or overexert themselves. They can recover quite quickly because fainting takes the load off the heart, but any dog that appears to faint should have their heart checked by a vet.

Swollen Abdomen

In people and animals, fluid retention is often a feature of heart failure. We have already mentioned fluid in the lungs, which is caused when the left side of the heart is failing. Fluid can also accumulate in the abdomen, giving a bloated appearance if the right side of the heart is


Zeaver has been prescribed Vetmedin, Furosamide and Cardalis which will keep her going for a while but the outlook is not great. She has improved a bit but we are now taking it day by day. It is agony, of course, because I know she is failing. I was not in the least bit ready for her to be dying yet as she is one of the “puppies” aged only 11 and a half, their mother, Zar1 is 16 so naturally we presumed she would
die first – but we know life doesn’t always go how you expect it.

Checking the Other Dogs

Earlier this week we took Zar1 (Zeaver’s Mum) and Zollinger (Zeaver’s sister) to see the lovely Ruth a St Peters Vet for heart scans. Zar1’s heart is fine despite her great age, although she has some laryngeal issues which will require some anti-inflammatory treatment. Zolli has a murmur which will need to be re-scanned in 6 months time, but no need for drugs at this time. I guess this is a better outcome than I was expecting but it is agony knowing that one of the two younger dogs will no doubt go before her mother. Now we must prepare
ourselves for the inevitable and be ready to make the dreaded final phone call!

Zar1, Zeaver, Zollinger

It’s a family affair (l-r) Zar1, Zeaver, Zollinger

I have always felt that you can never put your dog (or cat or horse) to sleep too early but it is easy to let it go on too long and I would never want to be guilty of that if my dog is suffering. Zeaver isn’t in pain at the moment, but she is disturbed and a bit restless, particularly at night, although this has now improved with an increase of the dose of Furosamide and she is now pretty stable.

Needless to say I am devastated, so don’t be surprised if I burst into tears whenever anyone asks how I am! It is the most heart-breaking part of owning dogs (and indeed all pets) that their lives are so short compared to ours and when that time is cut even shorter still, it is even harder. We are lucky that we can help them on their way gently and calmly at home with the help of our amazing mobile vet, Susie, but it never gets any easier saying goodbye.