Diagnostic Tests for Heart Disease

By: Suzanne Brown, DVM

TVMA Member
Belton, TX

Published October 2016

If you or your veterinarian suspect heart disease in your four-legged companion, it is important to know what type of disease your pet suffers from. To diagnose what type of heart disease your pet has, your veterinarian may use a number of diagnostic tests as outlined below.

Physical exam: A thorough physical exam can tell your veterinarian a great deal about your pet’s heart function. Below is a list of clinical signs commonly seen in animals with heart disease.

  • Abnormal pulses in the neck
  • Abnormal pulse rates or rhythms
  • Breathing pattern and rate (panting at rest)
  • Fluid in the lungs or abdomen
  • Weight fluctuations
  • Exercise intolerance (getting tired quickly)
  • Coughing (especially after sleeping)
  • Fainting episodes
  • Auscultation: This refers to listening to your pet’s chest with a stethoscope. Your veterinarian can determine the likely source of a murmur, the presence of an arrhythmia and the likelihood of fluid in the lungs simply by listening.

Pulses: Feeling the pulses, often while listening with a stethoscope, can help your veterinarian determine information about the rhythm of the heart and effectiveness of the heart’s pumping ability.

Blood pressure: When cats or dogs develop high blood pressure (hypertension) there is often an underlying disease (e.g. kidney disease, overactive adrenal glands). Elevated blood pressure causes the heart to work harder to deliver blood to the body. If a pet has hypertension, it is important to get it under control to prevent further damage to organs.

Chest X-rays: Knowing the size and shape of the heart, as well as whether there is abnormal fluid accumulation in the lungs, can often allow your veterinarian to determine the cause and severity of the heart disease.

Echocardiogram: High-frequency sound waves (ultrasound) enable your veterinarian to see into the heart and evaluate the blood flow in real time. This test is especially useful for myopathies (diseases of the heart muscle) and congenital conditions.

Blood tests: Several different types of blood tests can help determine the severity and cause of heart disease. NT-ProBNP is a specific test that may help differentiate respiratory disease from heart disease. Other tests for heart disease include heartworm tests and Chagas tests. Other useful tests may include evaluation of thyroid and taurine levels.

Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG): This test shows the electrical activity of the heart and is often used when an abnormal rhythm is heard.

Not every pet will benefit from all of these tests. Many of these tests are used only when specific diseases are suspected. Your veterinarian can help you determine which tests will be most helpful for your pet.

Suzanne Brown, DVM, is a graduate of Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine who lives in Belton, Texas. Dr. Brown practices at Belton Small Animal Clinic and Central Texas Mobile Veterinary Ultrasound.