Cardiac disease is a major player not only in human medicine but also one we manage frequently in the veterinary world. We commonly see dogs with disease of the left atrioventricular valve, better known as the mitral valve.
While there are many things that can affect this heart valve, including genetic defects, infections, and tumors, the main abnormality by far is endocardiosis.
Endocardiosis is the term used to describe the thickening and irregularity of the valve. This can happen to any of the heart valves, though the mitral valve seems to have an affinity for developing this degenerative condition.
We’re going to break down into simple terms why exactly dogs with mitral valve disease have problems and how pet owners can best support their pups with cardiac disease.
What Actually is the Mitral Valve?
The mitral valve is the common term for the left atrioventricular valve, or the valve that controls blood flow between the left atrium and left ventricle of the heart.
There are four major valves in the hearts of dogs and cats, each of which controls blood flow between two areas. Blood should only flow in one direction.
These valves are very thin, leaflike structures with small branches around their edges that attach them to the surrounding tissues. They open and close as the heart beats to allow blood to move through this one-way system.
Four chambers make up the primary structure of the heart. There are two atria and two ventricles, with a left and right of each.
Because the heart, lungs, and their surrounding vessels are such a refined system, irregularities in the valve shape or structure can have a major impact.
In cases of endocardiosis, the valve becomes nodular and thickened. This means it slowly loses its effective ability to keep the blood flow in the heart moving in the correct direction. As the valve shape becomes abnormal, small amounts of blood will leak backward.
It is this change in blood flow that causes the sound of a heart murmur (although heart murmurs can have lots of other causes, like anemia).
Over time, the blood flow becomes so irregular that the heart itself can no longer pump fluid through as it needs to.
If this continues over time, this back-up of blood will lead to heart enlargement and then to fluid buildup in the lungs.
This step is known as congestive heart failure and also causes other troubles, like a decreased ability to provide the body with the levels of oxygen it needs.
Which Dog Breeds Get Mitral Valve Endocardiosis?
Mitral valve endocardiosis is most commonly seen in these breeds:
We suspect the major contributor to developing mitral valve endocardiosis is genetic.
Small breeds appear to be most commonly affected, with the King Charles Cavalier Spaniel being significantly represented.
Symptoms of Mitral Valve Disease in Dogs
While it will take your veterinarian listening to your dog’s chest to hear the heart murmur in cases of mitral valve disease, there are also signs you can watch for at home.
Early on in the disease, there are often no clinical symptoms. In later stages, some of the common signs of progressive heart disease include:
Difficulty breathing (increased respiratory effort)
Reluctance to exercise or trouble recovering from exercise
Decreased appetite or lack of appetite
Costs for Pets with Mitral Valve Disease
If your pet has mitral valve disease, there can be some immediate and ongoing costs to think about.
The diagnosis of mitral valve disease truly relies on an echocardiogram, which is an ultrasound of the heart.
It can be heavily suspected based on the patient's age, clinical symptoms, and abnormalities seen on radiographs (x-rays); however, a true diagnosis requires the more sophisticated imaging of an echocardiogram.
Initial costs are typically put towards blood tests, blood pressure, and imaging.
Patients with mitral valve disease will usually be put on at least one (but usually more) medication to help the heart continue to work more efficiently as the disease progresses.
Medications can include:
Drugs to help the heart pump more effectively (positive inotropes like Pimobendan)
Drugs to help decrease the fluid load the heart has to deal with (diuretics like Furosemide and Spironolactone)
Drugs to help decrease fluid retained by the kidneys and decrease arterial blood pressure (ACE inhibitors like Enalapril and Benazepril)
These are consistently adjusted and monitored to maximize their effects without doing secondary harm to other body systems, such as the kidneys.
Caring for your pet's condition could become very expensive, so use an online pharmacy to get the same medication your vet would give you at cheaper prices.
Patients receiving therapy for the management of mitral valve disease need regular monitoring by their vet. These visits will likely include blood tests to check organ function while taking long-term medications and chest x-rays to look for signs of congestive heart failure.
If you can afford it, rechecks with a veterinary cardiologist are recommended, as they will be able to perform repeat echocardiograms.
Does Pet Insurance Cover Mitral Valve Disease?
If your dog’s covered by a dog insurance policy at the time they’re diagnosed, their diagnosis, medication, and checkups for mitral valve disease should be covered. Otherwise, it will likely be considered a pre-existing condition and would preclude coverage.
Life Expectancy of Dogs with Mitral Valve Disease
It is true, yes. Dogs with cardiac disease live shorter lives than their counterparts without it.
That being said, pets with cardiac disease supported by medications can live many quality years before therapies cannot keep up with the loss of heart function.
Pets with mitral valve disease can have an increased risk of sudden death as well as increased risks under anesthesia. How severely they’re affected may limit how your vet can treat them for this and other conditions.
Make sure you understand the treatment plan and prognosis from your vet, and ask as many questions as you need to about their ongoing care.
Only you can know when your dog’s quality of life is so affected that you need to think about euthanasia, but work with your vet to look after their happiness until then.