December 2, 2020
congestive heart failure in a dog

Congestive heart failure in a dog | Causes | Treatment

What is Congestive heart failure in a dog? It is a medical condition of pets when the pet’s heart is not able to pump adequate blood to meet the physiological requirements of the body’s organs. Heart failure is generally a slow and progressive condition. Heart failure is different from a heart attack. Dogs don’t have heart attacks like humans do.

Heart disease can affect one side of the heart or sometimes both sides. It can progress slowly and may take years to spot.

What causes congestive heart failure in a dog?

Causes of congestive heart failure (CHF) are divided into two main types

  • Congenital ( By birth) causes
  • Acquired causes

Congenital causes are generally seen at the early stage of life and they go worse as your pet gets older. Common congenital defects are patent ductus arteriosus, ventricular septal defects. Acquired causes generally start in the middle to the old age of pets. Some common acquired defects are valve defects, pericardial effusion, structural changes in blood vessels, heart muscle diseases.

What is mechanism of congestive heart failure?

A heart with a reduced ability to contract and pump is called a failing heart. But the pet’s body generally compensates by a compensatory mechanism. In the compensatory mechanism of congestive heart failure, the pet’s body tries to maintain blood perfusion by increasing the heart rate and blood pressure.

Initially, the compensatory mechanism may be beneficial. But in the end, it makes things worse. Congestive heart failure is the next stage of a failing heart. When the compensatory mechanism is not enough to maintain blood circulation. At this stage, blood starts pooling in internal organs like the lungs, liver, abdominal cavity.

congestive heart failure in a dog

what are symptoms of congestive heart failure?

Symptoms are variable depending upon the cause of the heart failure and side of heart affected ( left side vs right side)

At the beginning of the disease, you will not see any symptoms, but with time your pet may show some or all of the following signs

With left-sided congestive heart failure, signs are mainly due to fluid accumulation within the lungs 

  • Cough is the first sign you see during exercise.
  • Difficulty in breathing 
  • Lack of energy
  • Exercise intolerance
  • High respiratory rate 
  • Abnormal heart rate
  • Faint
  • Purple mucus membrane
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Weight loss in some cases 

Right-sided congestive heart failure may cause fluid accumulation in the abdomen, the chest cavity, liver, and the legs.

  • Fluid in the abdominal cavity (Ascites), especially in right-side heart failure
  • Edema of legs
  • Enlargement of liver
  • Fluid in the chest cavity, pleural effusion

How is congestive heart failure in diagnosed?

 Your veterinarian will follow some common steps for diagnosis of heart failure

  • A thorough history regarding physical activity, ongoing medication and type and frequency of symptoms
  • A thorough physical examination to listen to the heart and lungs sound. 
  • X-rays play an important role in the diagnosis of heart diseases.
  • Heart ultrasound is done to see structural and flow changes in the heart and lungs
  • Blood tests to rule out liver, kidney or blood-related diseases with similar types of symptoms.
  • Urine tests may help to check the kidney’s function.
  • ECG checks any disorder of heart rate and rhythm. 
  • A heartworm test is recommended in some geographical area

What is the treatment for congestive heart failure?

The goal of heart failure treatment is to improve blood flow, heart muscle contraction and blood pressure and to reduce the amount of fluid in the lungs, abdomen, or chest cavity.

The treatment protocol depends upon the root cause of heart failure and the side of the heart affected.

  • The first step in congestive failure is to stabilize the pet before any diagnostics are done. Place the pet in an oxygen chamber if he or she has difficulty breathing.
  • Your veterinarian may give some sedation medication to keep the pet calm
  • Diuretic, mainly furosemide is given to remove any extra fluid from the lungs and other body organs.
  • Pimobendan is another drug for heart disease. It improves heart muscle performance.
  • ACE inhibitors are also used to lower blood pressure. 
  • Some surgical procedures like Thoracentesis and abdominocentesis remove extra fluid from the chest and abdomen. These procedures are reserved for critical patients.
  • Surgery is recommended to correct congenital defects
  • A low salt diet is good for heart patients. Many prescription diets are available at veterinary clinics with low sodium.
  • Avoid heavy exercise 

What is prognosis of CHF?

Depends upon the cause of the disease and other concurrent diseases. Generally, life expectancy with proper treatment and the physical restriction is 6 months to 2 years.

congestive heart failure in a dog

What to Expect once congestive heart failure is diagnosed?

Your pet needs regular checkups to see the effect of the treatment plan. Monitor your pet’s respiration rate at sleep, it should be below 30 per minute. If it is more than 30 then, immediately consult your veterinarian. Don’t skip or change any medication without your veterinarian’s advice. 

How Long Can dogs live with heart failure?

It depends upon many factors like the severity of symptoms, other concurrent diseases, kidney function etc. Life expectancy with proper treatment and the physical restriction is 6 months to 2 years.

Can a dog die suddenly from CHF?

Sudden death is possible in heart failure.

Should I put my dog down with congestive heart failure?

If you see no improvement in clinical symptoms with a diuretic. Then, it is time to consider euthanasia. Consult your veterinarian for all other options too.

What is the prognosis for a dog with heart failure?

Unfortunately, the prognosis of congestive heart failure is less favourable. there is no treatment for it. The goal of the treatment is to improve the quality of life.

Is diarrhea a symptom of congestive heart failure?

Due to low heart output, blood can pool in the intestine can cause diarrhea.

Some other important articles:   

IMHA in Dogs

Diabetes in Dogs

Cushing’s disease in Dogs

Pyometra in Dogs

Pancreatitis in Dogs

This information is NOT intended as a substitute for veterinary consultation for any of your pet’s diseases. Always consult your veterinarian for a diagnosis and treatment plan.


  • Blackwell’s Five-Minute Veterinary Consult: Canine and Feline by Larry P. Tilley, Francis W. K. Smith
  • Saunders Manual of Small Animal Practice by Robert G. Sherding and Stephen J. Birchard
  • Emergency Procedures for the Small Animal Veterinarian by Signe J. Plunkett
  • Merck Veterinary Manual by Susan Aiello
  • 100 Top Consultations in Small Animal General Practice by Peter Hill, Sheena Warman, Geoff Shawcross
  • Plumb’s Veterinary Drug Handbook by Donald C. Plumb
  • Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care Manual, 3rd Edition by Karol A. Mathews

Dr Gurpal Chahal, DVM

Doctor of Veterinary Medicine

View all posts by Dr Gurpal Chahal, DVM →

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