Eight year old Max has always been a fit and healthy dog, but every year, Emma brings him along to see me for his yearly health check. This year, for the first time, something has come up that will have serious long term consequences.
After the usual annual physical examination, which Max passed with flying colours, I used my stethoscope to listen to Max’s heart. I have done this every year since Max was a puppy, and up until this year, his heart has always been normal. It was different this year: I could hear a loud heart murmur.
a heart murmur
A heart murmur is a swishing noise in between the normal “lub-dub” sound of a heart beating, resulting in a heart sound that goes “lub-shhhh-dub”. The significance of a heart murmur is that it indicates turbulence in the blood flowing around the heart, and in most dogs, this is caused by a leaky heart valve. While this may not cause problems immediately, it isn’t “normal”, and as time passes, it’s likely that a leaky heart valve will start to cause signs of heart disease.
Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, like Max, are especially prone to leaky heart valves, with over half of all Cavaliers being affected by five years of age, and nearly 100% having a heart murmur by the age of ten. It’s the leading cause of death in the breed, and since it’s carried in the genes, it’s a big worry for the breeders who produce puppies. Work is being done to try to reduce the incidence of the problem, but for dogs like Max, it’s an issue they have to live with.
Once a heart valve has started to leak, it tends to gradually get worse over several years. The heart murmur gets louder as the valve starts to leak more, and eventually, signs of heart disease develop. Affected dogs start to cough, they may have difficulty breathing, and they’re unable to exercise like before. When this starts to happen, drugs are prescribed to help the heart to function more efficiently, and these usually keep a dog comfortable for months or years. Sadly, however, eventually the drugs stop working, and heart failure due to leaky heart valves is the most common cause of death in the breed. In humans, new heart valves can be surgically implanted into the heart: this is not possible for dogs.
At the moment, Max has no signs of heart disease: he still enjoys walking for over half an hour twice daily. Emma is watching him for any signs of coughing or breathlessness, but so far, so good. There’s no need to give him treatment as long as he stays free of any signs of illness.
Max is busily enjoying every day of life, and long may that continue.