One of Rachel’s earliest memories is going to collect Beau when he was a puppy. She was just three years old when her family drove to a breeder in the countryside to see the litter of pups. Rachel chose him because he was the only ruby-coloured (all brown) pup: the rest of them were a mixture of black, brown and white.
Beau has been a healthy dog, but at a routine visit to the vet recently, a heart murmur was noticed. This is a type of swishing sound that can be heard when the chest is examined with a stethoscope: it means that there is turbulent blood flow inside the heart. In Cavaliers, the most common cause is a leaky heart valve. The breed suffers from a high incidence of premature degeneration of the heart valves and it’s common to hear a murmur in middle aged Cavaliers. There’s no need for any treatment to be given at first: many dogs have heart murmurs but no sign of any problem, and they can continue to be healthy for many years without any medication. However when dogs with heart murmurs fall ill, it’s important that appropriate treatment is given promptly.
Beau’s problem started two weeks ago: he started to cough, then one morning, he developed serious difficulty breathing. His sides were heaving and he could hardly stand up. He was rushed to our clinic, and we admitted him to our hospital for the day. His life was in danger at that stage, and he needed to be kept in an oxygen-enriched cage for most of the day. I took a series of xrays and these showed an enlarged heart, confirming that his problem was caused by heart failure due to the leaky valves. His heart was no longer able to pump the blood around his body effectively, and fluid was pooling in his lungs, preventing him from getting enough oxygen.
The ultimate answer to the problem of leaky heart valves is to have surgery to repair or replace the valves, but this is not available for dogs. Instead, medication is used to ease the pressure on the heart, and to make it beat more strongly. Beau was started onto a cocktail of four different drugs, each having a different effect. He is happy to take his medication: each tablet is wrapped in a piece of ham, so he feels like he is being pampered with extra treats rather than being forced to have something he doesn’t want. The medication doesn’t cure dogs with heart failure permanently, but it will remove the fluid from their lungs, so that their breathing improves and they cough less often.
Beau’s breathing became much more settled almost immediately with his treatment, but he still breathes more heavily than he used to. I asked Rachel to use an app on her iPhone – called “Cardalis” – to measure how many breaths he takes every minute. This is an important figure: a normal dog takes less than 30 breaths per minute, and when Beau was at his worst, he was breathing nearly 50 times every minute. The app is easy to use: Rachel taps the screen of her phone every time he takes a breath, and this is converted into the number of breaths per minute. By tapping another button, Rachel can send me an update by email every week. If his breathing gets too fast, I can then suggest increasing the dose of medication.
So far, Beau is doing very well. He still has a mild cough in the morning, but he’s a happy dog again, enjoying life with his family.
- Coughing and difficulty breathing are often caused by heart disease
- Some breeds of dogs are more prone to heart problems
- Modern treatments can extend an affected dog’s life by months or years