Monday, March 22, 2010 11:00 AM

Congestive Heart Failure in Cats

Congestive heart failure, or cardiomyopathy, is mostly a disease of older cats (people, too). As the name implies, the heart slowly begins to fail, resulting in symptoms that are directly related to the organ's inability to do what it is supposed to do: Move blood around the body. In a very old cat, years of doing its job can result in some decrease in heart function, which is a chronic condition and not especially serious. Eventually, the heart will stop beating and the animal will die of "old age". When symptoms come on fairly suddenly, and at a younger age, it is labeled, "acute" and needs attention. Often, it results from years of heart problems, and is not just the result of living a long life.

When commercial cat food first became popular in the late 1960s and 70s, cats began to develop cardiomyopathy because of the lack of taurine in the new diet. This amino acid, one of the building block of protein which is so important to carnivores like cats, was being destroyed by the processing methods of the industry. Once the problem was identified, taurine was added back into the product before packaging, along with many other nutrients which were also incinerated by the high heat of commercial cat food production. Taurine, however, cannot be synthesized by a cat's body and must be ingested directly. It is abundant in muscle and organ meat, and the broth in which these meats are prepared.

Nowadays, this does problem no longer occurs. However, the poor nutritional value of many commercial cat foods can contribute to this condition, just as it has an effect on many other organs and systems in the body. As the heart enlarges from the effort of trying to pump blood around the body, blood pressure drops and an accumulation of fluid develops in body tissues. Oxygen cannot be delivered as efficiently to all outreaches of the body, and the slow pace of blood flow can result in blood clots forming. Eventually, other organs also begin to fail since they cannot do their jobs without the consistent delivery of oxygen-rich blood.

One of the first symptoms you will notice is lethargy. The cat tires easily, and may have trouble breathing. A cough may develop, and the buildup of fluids may cause a swollen, "hard" belly. The mucus membranes may be pale, or have a bluish tinge. While appetite decreases, thirst increases since wastes are not being moved out of the body as quickly as they used to be, and toxins build up in the blood.

How long can a cat with heart failure live? If you recognize the symptoms and make the appropriate changes, you can keep serious symptoms at bay for a few more years. Tomorrow, we'll take a look at the kind of care that is necessary for a cat with cardiomyopathy.
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Amanda has worked with animals for many years and has always had cats in her life. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and two excellent cats.
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