Echocardiography is the evaluation of the heart using ultrasound, or sound waves, which reflects a picture of the inside of the heart onto a monitor screen. Echocardiograms or “echos” are one of the most useful and informative diagnostics to characterize heart disease not only in people but in dogs and cats as well. By obtaining the images of the heart structures and visualizing its dynamic function, we can diagnose a wide range of heart conditions and get an idea of the heart function while formulating a treatment plan, if necessary. This is an advanced diagnostic test and has usually been limited to veterinary cardiology specialists. Doctor Hodges is NOT a cardiology specialist, but has gone through advanced training courses to be able to offer this greatly needed service to our general practice. There are a limited number of cardiology specialists in our area and there can be a long delay of getting your pet in to see one, if needed, unless your pet is unstable. We are excited to be able to offer this service in-house for those who are either unable or choose not to pursue a cardiology referral.
Heart disease is very common in cats and dogs. Many of our smaller dog breeds are pre-disposed to acquired or degenerative heart valve disease. Many larger breed dogs are genetically pre-disposed to cardiomyopathies (problems with the heart muscle). It is estimated that up to 30 to 50% of cats will have some degree of heart disease in their lifetime. When heart disease becomes advanced, the heart may go into congestive failure and be unable to keep up with adequately circulating the blood in the body. It has been shown that catching and treating advanced heart disease earlier can significantly prolong the life of your pet. The scary thing is silent heart disease is thought to be the number one cause of sudden death in dogs and cats.
How do you know if your pet would benefit from an echocardiogram? The best answer is to ask your veterinarian! However, an echocardiogram can be very useful if your pet has:
- a newly diagnosed or worsening heart murmur (caused by abnormal blood flow in the heart)
- an existing heart murmur and about to undergo anesthesia
- an arrythmia (abnormal heart beat)
- an enlarged heart is seen on chest x-rays
- elevated BnP (blood test measuring thickening and stretch in the heart)
- exercise intolerance
- collapse or fainting
- increased or labored breathing
- vague symptoms such as lethargy, loss of appetite or weight with normal labwork findings
When an echocardiogram is performed on your pet, they are gently laid on their side and a small patch of fur in the armpits is shaved for a clearer image of the heart. Echos are not painful and usually the images can be obtained in 20 minutes or less. An echocardiogram is usually attempted without sedation as many drugs can affect the heart function. However, some patients may need light sedation to lie still to get the required images. After the scan, evaluating and running measurements on the images will take longer. For now, all of our echo studies are submitted digitally for review by a boarded cardiology specialist to make sure we are offering the highest quality medicine. Once the images have been reviewed, the findings and plan are discussed.
A referral to a cardiologist may still be recommended depending on findings. Especially for less common and severe congenital heart defects. Other tests that may be recommended with a cardiac work up include checking blood pressure, chest x-rays, an EKG, and or a special blood test called BnP which correlates to the degree of abnormal strain on the left ventricle in cases of significant heart disease.
If you have more questions or are interested in having an echo performed on your pet, please reach out to us or discuss this with your veterinarian during your next visit.