Hello Dr. Kiffney! Please share little about you, your background, and your own pets if you have any. 

I grew up in Seattle and from a young age was fascinated with animal life. I would spend hours at the zoo as a young child, then started volunteering there when I was a teenager. The diversity of animal life is fascinating and kept me motivated to become a veterinarian. I was fortunate to have parents who supported my dream and graduated from Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine in 1995. 

We have two cats: Kelso, an 8-year-old old male, black, fluffy feline; and BamBam, a four-year-old female black cat. [BamBam] is tripod (her left hind leg was amputated at a young age due to injury). Our dogs consist of a chihuahua (two years old, adopted from Whatcom Humane Society) named Waldo and a poodle mix who is 12 years old, named Luna.  

What’s the most common health problem you see in dogs? What about cats? 

Itchy skin is the most common issue we see in dogs, whether it be due to fleas, allergies, or infections.  For cats, urinary problems are a very common reason for being brought to the veterinary office. The primary symptom of this is inappropriate toileting – where your cat is peeing outside of the litter box, often on clothes, carpets, or other soft items. 

I understand that “heart disease” is a catch-all term. Speaking more specifically, what are a few of the most common heart conditions that you see in animals on a day-to-day basis? 

Heart disease in our dogs and cats really consists of a myriad of different issues. In the Pacific Northwest, we are fortunate to not have very much heartworm transmission, a disease that is transmitted by mosquitoes and infects dogs and, to a lesser extent, cats. It is very common in the southeastern United States. 

In dogs, there are two very common heart conditions that we see: 

  • Myxomatous mitral valve disease (MMVD) is the most common cardiac condition seen in dogs. It is mostly, but not exclusively, a disease of smaller breed dogs, and is seen in middle-age or geriatric dogs. MMVD leads to degeneration of the mitral valves (the valves on the left side of the heart between the left atrium and left ventricle). 
  • Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) is another common heart disease in dogs. The heart muscle becomes weak and loses the ability to contract normally. When the heart can’t pump blood properly, the body retains water to increase blood volume, leading to further enlargement of the heart. This can eventually lead to arrhythmias (abnormal electric impulse in the heart) and heart failure.  

There has been a recent increase in heart disease (cardiomyopathy) in dogs eating grain-free, exotic-ingredient diets (both home-prepared and commercial). This led the FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine to collaborate with researchers to investigate the connection between diet and heart disease in July of 2018. Grain-free food has become increasingly popular due to marketing and unsupported nutritional claims. These diets have been associated with absolute or functional taurine deficiency, which leads to dilated cardiomyopathy. 

What about cats? 

In cats, the most common heart disease is hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM). HCM causes the heart muscle to become thickened and abnormally stiff, not allowing the normal filling of the heart. This can then lead to fluid buildup in the left atrium and secondary congestive heart failure. 

Are there telltale signs that pet owners can watch out for? 

Clinical signs of heart disease in cats are variable and depend on the severity of the particular animals’ disease. Some cats demonstrate no outward signs of disease, as cats are very good at masking or hiding problems until they become more severe. Often the first time an owner is made aware of their cat’s diagnosis is at an annual exam when their veterinarian hears a murmur or arrhythmia.  

Early signs of heart disease in cats include an increased resting respiratory rate (the number of breaths per minute). More severe signs consist of panting, or respiratory distress, and occasionally paralysis secondary to a blood clot. 

Clinical signs of heart disease in dogs include the increase in resting respiratory rate and decreased appetite but also coughing, much more so than in cats. 

Is heart disease more common in certain breeds? 

Certain breeds of dogs and cats are more prone to heart disease. In dogs, small dogs (less than 20 pounds) are more prone to MMVD, with cavalier King Charles spaniels being the most commonly affected. DCM is seen in several large breed dogs such as the Irish wolfhound, doberman pinscher, boxer, Great Danes, Newfoundlands, Portuguese water dogs, dalmations, and (on the smaller side) cocker spaniels  

Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is genetically linked in Maine coon and ragdoll cats. 

How common is it for a vet to hear a heart murmur during routine exams? Is this always cause for alarm? 

It is common to auscult a heart murmur in dogs, especially in older small breed dogs, and is not a cause for panic. The veterinarian can quickly assess if your dog is at high/imminent risk of heart failure based on other physical exam findings.  

The cause of a cat’s murmur cannot usually be determined by listening alone. In many cats, benign murmurs can sound exactly like murmurs in a cat with serious heart disease, so radiographs, ECGs, and echocardiograms will be the next diagnostic tools discussed. 

Can pets still live a long life after being diagnosed with a heart condition?

This depends on the severity of their heart disease at the time of diagnosis. Cats with subclinical HCM have a median survival of at least three years, whereas cats presenting with congestive heart failure have a shorter mean survival time.  The same holds true of dogs. 

Beyond exercise and a balanced diet, how can pet owners be more proactive when it comes to the health of their four legged friends? 

Finding a veterinarian in your area that you trust is an important part of keeping your pet healthy. There are a myriad of so-called “experts” in dog and cat nutrition (online and at the pet food store) who make recommendations for diets and supplements.  If you find a product that you want to use with your pet, ask their veterinarian what they think to ensure it is safe.  Regular exams are recommended for your dog and cat, as early signs of disease are often first detected at a well-pet visit. 

Northshore Veterinary Hospital, 1486 Electric Ave., Bellingham, 360.738.6916, northshore-vet.com