Unfortunately, heart disease isn’t a problem that only affects people, cats can have heart problems too! The most common heart disease in cats is called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), a condition where the heart muscle becomes thick and stiff. This abnormal heart muscle can’t relax properly, and the heart can’t fill with blood as easily as it should. The exact cause of HCM isn’t known, but genetics are suspected to play a role. Other diseases can cause heart changes that mimic HCM including hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid gland) and high blood pressure.
Most cats with HCM initially don’t show any symptoms, but a heart murmur or abnormal heart rhythm heard by your primary veterinarian can sometimes be a sign of an underlying heart problem. Cats with HCM may develop fluid in or around their lungs, a condition called congestive heart failure, and this can cause rapid and labored breathing.
Some breeds of cats have a higher risk of developing HCM than other breeds, but any cat can develop HCM. Breeds at increased risk include the Maine Coon, Ragdoll, Sphynx, Bengal, British Shorthair and Persian breeds. Most affected cats are middle aged, but even young cats can develop HCM. The most accurate way to diagnose HCM is with an echocardiogram, an ultrasound of the heart. Veterinary cardiologists have specialized training in the diagnosis and treatment of heart disease in pets and can work with your primary care veterinarian if heart disease is suspected. Unfortunately, there is no cure for HCM in cats, but medications are available to help treat the disease.
If you have a middle-aged cat, make sure to see your veterinarian yearly so they can evaluate your pet for any signs of heart disease. If you have a cat that is a breed known to be at risk for heart disease, talk to your veterinarian about the possibility of screening for heart disease with an echocardiogram.