Browsing tag: Heart disease

Getting to the Heart of the Matter – Heart murmurs in dogs

February being the month of luurve I thought I would write about matters of the heart. The actual heart. Sorry if anyone got excited there!

Whenever you take your dog to the vet, your vet will listen to their heart and chest. They are checking to make sure the heart beat is strong, regular and that there are no murmurs. A heart murmur occurs when the clear drum beat of the heart (often described as ‘lub dub’) has a swooshing sound. This is caused by the blood not being pushed cleanly through the different chambers of the heart, most often escaping through leaky valves back the way it came. It is one of the commonest signs of heart disease and I am going to concentrate on them in this article.

The breed we see most often with heart murmurs is the gorgeous Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. They often develop them fairly early in life, between 4 and 6 years old is average, but don’t usually develop associated heart failure for at least a couple of years. However, they can occur in any dog and are occasionally heard in puppies (but most will grow out of them)

Heart murmurs are graded from 1-6, with 1 being the quietest and 6 being so loud the normal beating of the heart is drowned out completely. In general the louder the murmur, the worse the leaking of the valves and as the disease progresses the murmurs will get louder. Every time your vet checks your dog they will record the degree of murmur, which allows them to track its progress. They will also be listening to the pattern of the murmur and whereabouts on the heart it is loudest. Often there are no outward signs of a problem, which is why regular veterinary check-ups are so important.

It is very worrying when your dog is diagnosed with a heart murmur and you can feel quite helpless. However, although we cannot cure your pet’s problem there is a huge amount both we as vets, and you as an owner, can do to help them. The first thing to determine is whether they are in actual heart failure and this is a really important point. Just because a dog has a heart murmur it does NOT mean they are in heart failure! It does mean, however, that thire heart is inefficient and has to work harder than a normal organ to do the same job. This puts it under more pressure and essentially means it wears out more quickly.

When a heart murmur is diagnosed, it can be helpful to perform some extra tests to determine how the heart is coping and what exactly is causing the sound. Techniques include ultrasound scanning (although some vets may need to refer you to a specialist for this), using x-rays to measure the size and shape of the heart and taking your dog’s blood pressure. It can be very useful to repeat these regularly (once or twice a year) to monitor the progress of the condition.

There are also things you can do at home. I advise my clients to take their pets heart rate at least once a week when they are relaxed, so any increases (which can indicate a worsening of the disease) are be picked up quickly. I also advise regularly timing a short walk they do often. This allows them to pick up on the very subtle slowing down that will occur early in the disease. Believe it or not dogs are far more naturally athletic and fit than us humans (even fat little Cavies!) and although, like people, they will eventually become breathless & find exercise more challenging, they can hide these effects of heart failure for some time. Other symptoms can include a soft wet cough, collapsing or even going blue or pale at the gums. However, these usually occur only when the heart is in advanced failure and treatment will be more difficult.

Before heart failure develops the best thing you can do for your pet is ensure they stay slim. Being over-weight makes it much harder for the heart to function well. However, once it occurs, the sooner treatment is started the better, which is why looking for the more subtle signs of the problem is so important. The good news is there are many different medications that can help your pet, which will very significantly increase their length and quality of life.

So, if your vet finds a heart murmur in your dog, don’t panic! Keep them in tip top condition, be vigilant for the signs of heart failure and once they occur ensure they start on medication quickly. With this your best friend is likely to be with you for some time yet, which will keep both your hearts from breaking!

Cat Henstridge BVSc MRCVS – Read more of her blogs at www.catthevet.com

Colic: Part 1: Diagnosis and Workup

Horse colic examination and anatomy
When talking about colic, it’s important to have some idea of what the various parts of the equine gut are… So, here we go:
Stomach – quite small, and hidden away deep up in the ribcage.
Small intestine - this is very long, but quite narrow (perhaps 1 or 2 inches across). It is all coiled up throughout the abdomen.
Large intestine – this is divided into three parts:
The Caecum is a large sac perhaps four or five feet long, pointing forward, and can be heard on the right flank. Generally, it makes a loud gurgling noise every 20 to 30 seconds in a normal, healthy horse.
The Large Colon makes up a double U shape, lying on the bottom of the abdomen. It can be up to a foot across, but at each end is a sharp 180-degree bend; the bend near the pelvis (the pelvic flexure) is especially narrow.
The Small Colon runs from the large colon down to the rectum, along the top of the abdominal space.

It’s something all horse owners dread – colic. However, colic is a symptom, not a disease in its own right, and has a wide range of different causes. This is the first in a three-part series where I’ll be looking at colic in horses – its diagnosis and treatment, and what happens if your horse has to be referred for surgery.

Put simply, all colic is, is abdominal pain. However, before you’re tempted to dismiss it as a stomach ache, it’s worth remembering that the horse’s intestines are as complicated as a major chemical factory! Anything that causes disruption to their function is potentially life-threatening.

Occasionally, colic pain comes from a non-intestinal source, e.g. Liver disease (think ragwort poisoning, or liver fluke), or a kidney issue. In mares, it can also be caused by certain disorders of the reproductive tract. However, the vast majority are due to disease, damage or malfunction of the intestines.

If you call your vet and tell them that your horse has colic, they’ll treat it as an emergency, because it can be. They’ll generally take a bit of history from you, a quick description of what the horse is doing at the moment, and then they’ll head out to examine the horse. Most vets will also give instructions for what to do while you’re waiting; it’s important to do what they say, not what someone else on the yard suggests. This is because they may have an idea what sort of colic your horse has, and will try to tailor their instructions to the specific case. For example, some forms of colic respond well to being trotted around on the lunge; however, that can worsen other types.

When they arrive, the vet will want to establish three things:
Firstly, does the horse actually have colic? I’ve been called out to “colic” cases that proved to be laminitis; to a mare foaling down; once even to a tired (but perfectly healthy) horse sleeping in his stable!
Secondly, assuming it is a colic, is it a Medical or a Surgical Colic? (I’ll talk more about this distinction in a minute).
Third and finally, can they make a specific diagnosis of what kind of colic it is?

Every vet will have their own routine, but my workup goes something like this:

What’s the horse’s behaviour like? Is he alert, or dull and unresponsive? Is he thrashing about, or just looking at his flanks occasionally? Generally, a quieter horse is likely to have a milder colic, unless he or she is so toxic that they are depressed or spaced out. One exception is that some spasmodic colics are incredibly painful – however, the pain usually comes in waves.

Are there any droppings in the stable? Hard, dry lumps of faeces is suggestive of an impaction, or blockage; while very runny faeces or diarrhoea may suggest colic secondary to an infection, e.g. Salmonella.

Then I’ll start my examination:

Mucous membranes (gums are usually most accessible and reliable) – what colour are they, what is the refill time, are they tacky?
The normal colour is described as being “salmon pink”, and if you press with a finger for a moment, the colour should fade to white, then return within 2 seconds. They should also be nice and moist to the touch. If they are red, or purple, or the colour doesn’t fade, it is highly suggestive of toxic shock (like septicaemia). This is a marker of a really, really severe injury to the gut wall, that’s allowing bacterial toxins to enter the circulation. If the refill time is greater than 2 seconds, or the membranes are tacky or dry, it suggests dehydration and/or shock.

Heart rate - how fast, is the rhythm good? As a (very rough and ready!) general rule, a heart rate under 60 beats per minute implies a Medical colic, while over 80 suggests a Surgical case. If there’s an abnormality in the rhythm, it can mean heart disease as well, or severe toxic shock.

Gut sounds - what do the guts sound like in all 4 quadrants?
This is where you’ll see your vet putting a stethoscope to the horse’s flanks, listening to the guts. The normal, healthy gut makes a wide range of bubbling, gurgling noises (the sort that anywhere else you would associate with really cheap plumbing!). The bottom left is the left Large Colon, bottom right is the right Large Colon and perhaps some Caecum, the top right is the base of the Caecum, and the top left is mainly small intestine. This is one of the most useful tests we can do – reduced sounds mean the guts are “slowing down” – this can mean an impaction or blockage, but it can also mean a serious disease e.g. a twisted gut. Increased sounds is generally a good sign, as it usually means a Spasmodic colic.

Finally, I’d want to take the temperature (a horse with a fever is likely to have another disease, e.g. Salmonella, that is the underlying cause of the colic), and then, if at all possible, do a rectal exam. People get very excited about this, and it’s one of the standard jokes about vets, but I’d like to go on record and say that I doubt anyone actually enjoys rectalling a horse! Apart from anything else, it’s dangerous to the vet, and uncomfortable to the horse… However, it can provide more information than almost any other test. What we’re feeling for is anything unusual: is the large colon a normal size and texture? How about the Caecum? Can you feel the small intestine? Usually, the small intestine is almost impossible to feel – it just slithers out of the way. If, however, you can feel thick, swollen loops of intestines (they feel a bit like black pudding, or really thick, soft sausages, if you’re interested!), it is an indication of a complete blockage in the small intestine, which needs emergency colic surgery. On the other hand, if you feel a doughy, squishy mass in the colon, that means the horse has an impaction.

Sometimes, if there is doubt about whether food is passing from the stomach or not, the vet will pass a stomach tube and see how full the stomach is. This looks really easy in theory – you pass a tube up the horse’s nose, he swallows it, and then you syphon out the stomach. If you get lots, it’s too full, if not, it’s fine. However, not all horses are quite so easy! Some horses are really difficult to get to swallow the tube, and it can take several attempts to make sure it’s not in the windpipe (which would be a disaster). Also, the equine stomach is, as one equine surgeon I know once put it, “a fantastic organ – it can be completely dilated (full), and you’ll get nothing out of it until you move the tube half an inch, then it all comes spurting out”. However, if there’s any doubt, it can be a great tool to ensure that there isn’t a rapidly life- threatening blockage; it can also be emergency first aid to prevent the horse’s stomach rupturing in a severe surgical colic.

The vet will also sometimes take blood samples – we tend to hold onto these in case they’re needed, but the main things we’re looking for are:
1) Evidence of dehydration – the blood tests will allow us to quantify the degree of dehydration, making it easier to plan a course of treatment.
2) Evidence of infection – if the white cell count is significantly abnormal, it suggests there may be something else causing the colic that we might need to look into.
3) Liver and kidney function – sometimes liver or kidney disease can present as colic
4) MOST IMPORTANTLY – Fibrinogen levels. Fibrinogen is a substance that can be used to assess inflammation and tissue damage – a high Fib level in a colic case is very suggestive that the gut integrity is damaged, and that surgical intervention may be needed.

There’s one other sample that can be very useful, especially as a “rule out” test if the clinical findings are contradictory or unclear. This is a peritoneal tap. This test carries some risk, but sometimes it’s the best way to find out what’s going on inside the abdomen. The belly of the horse is clipped, and prepared so make it as sterile as possible – we don’t want to risk introducing infection. The area is numbed with local anaesthetic, and then either a small incision is made with a scalpel and a blunt cannula inserted or (more usually) a small sterile needle is VERY CAREFULY inserted through the abdominal wall. The fluid that comes out is collected in a sterile sample pot for examination. The risk, of course, is that damage is done to the intestines; however, we’re very careful to avoid them as far as possible, and instead to collect the fluid that surrounds the intestines, the peritoneal fluid. In the lab, the numbers of cells can be counted to assess if there’s infection in the belly (peritonitis); however, in the field we can tell three things:
1) The tap fluid is clear (you can read text through it) yellowish – this suggests that the abdomen is basically OK, and means that in the absence of any other findings, the case can be managed medically.
2) The tap is cloudy, reddish or umber in colour - this means severe damage to the gut walls and/or peritonitis (infection in the abdominal cavity). This horse needs urgent referral for investigation at a hospital.
3) The tap contains gut contents (green or brown, lumpy) – sadly, this means that the intestines have ruptured; the horse is highly unlikely to survive. Alternatively, this may mean that the needle has gone into a part of the intestines, so if I get this, I’ll usually repeat the tap a few inches away, to make sure. If the needle has damaged the intestine, it’s not a disaster, but it is something to be avoided if possible.

So, using all the information from our history and workup, the vet has to decide if the colic is Medical or Surgical.

The terms are more or less self-explanatory: a medical colic can be managed with drugs, while a surgical colic needs emergency surgery.

As a rule of thumb, 9/10 colics are medical, and can almost always be managed on the yard. In my next blog, I’ll be looking at these Medical colics, their causes and treatment.

If you are worried your horse or pony may be suffering from colic, talk to your vet, or check the symptoms using our Interactive Equine Symptom Guide to help assess how urgent the problem may be.

More Useful Information

Examining your pet

Simple ways to check the health of your pet. Vets use these techniques as part of their clinical examiniation.

Medicating your pet

Arming you with the same simple techniques for stress free pill giving.

Worming & Flea Treatment

Information and advice in treating your pet for worms and fleas.