Is Congestive Heart Failure Common in Older Dogs? What You Need to Know

As dogs age, they are more prone to diseases of age such as heart disease.  When heart disease becomes severe, it can lead to the life-threatening condition of congestive heart failure (CHF). This condition requires quick action and if early enough in the disease, many dogs can be stabilized and managed on medication for good quality of life.  That, however, can change as the disease progresses.  Here’s everything you need to know about congestive heart failure in senior dogs.

congestive heart failure in senior dogs

Understanding Congestive Heart Failure

Congestive heart failure occurs when the heart can no longer pump blood efficiently, leading to a buildup of fluid in the lungs, chest, and abdomen. This fluid buildup results in breathing difficulty, coughing and lethargy. CHF is not a disease in itself but a syndrome that arises due to various heart diseases, such as mitral valve disease (MVD), dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), or chronic valvular disease.

Causes of Congestive Heart Failure in Senior Dogs

Several factors can contribute to the development of CHF in older dogs:

  1. Mitral Valve Disease (MVD): MVD is the most common cause of CHF in small to medium-sized breeds. It occurs when the mitral valve, which separates the left atrium and left ventricle, degenerates, and leaks, leading to inefficient blood flow.
  2. Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM): DCM primarily affects larger breeds and is characterized by the weakening and enlargement of the heart muscles, impairing the heart’s ability to pump blood effectively.
  3. Chronic Valvular Disease: This encompasses various conditions that cause the heart valves to deteriorate, leading to blood flow issues and CHF.
  4. Congenital Heart Defects: Some dogs are born with heart defects that can lead to CHF later in life.
  5. Heartworm Disease: Heartworms can cause significant damage to the heart and lungs, potentially leading to CHF if not treated promptly.
senior dogs

Symptoms of Congestive Heart Failure in Senior Dogs

Recognizing the early signs of CHF can lead to timely intervention and better management of the condition. Common symptoms include:

  • Coughing: Coughing is a common symptom. The cough can often sound ‘wet’ and occurs due to fluid buildup in the lungs.
  • Difficulty Breathing: Labored or rapid breathing, even at rest, is a red flag and warrants immediate veterinary attention.
  • Lethargy: A sometimes subtle decrease in energy levels and reluctance to engage in physical activities.
  • Loss of Appetite: Reduced interest in food can signify CHF.
  • Fainting or Collapse: These severe symptoms indicate advanced heart failure and require immediate veterinary attention.
  • Swollen Abdomen: Fluid accumulation in the abdomen, known as ascites, can cause the belly to swell.

Diagnosing Congestive Heart Failure

If you suspect your senior dog has CHF, prompt veterinary evaluation is crucial. Diagnosing CHF involves a combination of clinical examination and diagnostic tests:

  1. Physical Examination: Your vet will listen to your dog’s heart and lungs with a stethoscope to detect abnormal heart sounds or fluid buildup.
  2. Chest X-rays: X-rays can reveal the size and shape of the heart and the presence of fluid in the lungs or chest cavity.
  3. Echocardiogram: This heart ultrasound provides detailed images of the heart’s structure and function, helping to identify the underlying cause of CHF.
  4. Electrocardiogram (ECG): An ECG measures the heart’s electrical activity, identifying any arrhythmias or abnormalities.
  5. Blood Tests: Blood tests can assess overall health and identify conditions that may exacerbate CHF, such as kidney disease.
Senior Dog Care experts

Treatment Options for Congestive Heart Failure

While CHF is a progressive condition, there are several treatment options available to manage symptoms and improve your dog’s quality of life if early enough in the disease process:

  1. Medications: Various medications can help manage CHF, including:
    • Diuretics: These drugs reduce fluid buildup by promoting urination.
    • ACE Inhibitors: These help relax blood vessels and reduce the heart’s workload.
    • Pimobendan: This medication improves heart muscle strength and efficiency.
    • Beta-Blockers: These help manage abnormal heart rhythms and reduce blood pressure.
  2. Dietary Management: A heart-healthy diet is crucial for dogs with CHF. Low-sodium diets help reduce fluid retention; specialized diets can support heart function.
  3. Exercise: Moderate exercise can help maintain muscle tone and overall health, but avoiding overexertion is important. Your vet can recommend an appropriate exercise plan.
  4. Regular Veterinary Visits: Regular check-ups are essential for monitoring the progression of CHF and adjusting treatment plans as needed.

Living with a Dog with Congestive Heart Failure

Caring for a dog with CHF requires dedication and vigilance, but it is possible to provide a good quality of life for your furry friend. Here are some tips:

  1. Monitor Symptoms Closely

Keep a close eye on your dog’s symptoms and immediately report any changes to your vet. Early intervention can prevent complications and improve outcomes.

  1. Administer Medications Consistently

Ensure that your dog receives their medications exactly as prescribed. Set reminders if necessary, and never adjust dosages without consulting your vet.

  1. Monitor Their Sleeping Respiratory Rate Daily

A dog’s sleeping respiratory rate should be less than 25-30. Monitoring this daily with apps like Cardalis can be lifesaving. If you notice the sleeping RR taking a big jump up or going above the normal range, call your vet right away.

  1. Provide a Balanced Diet

Feed your dog a balanced diet that supports heart health. Your vet can recommend specific foods and supplements that may benefit your dog’s condition.

  1. Low Stress Environment

Keeping a low stress environment for your older dog with heart disease can be helpful to avoid stressing the heart.

  1. Adjust Exercise Levels

Engage your dog in gentle, regular exercise to maintain muscle tone and overall health. Must be appropriate for their level of health and vet approved.  Avoid strenuous activities that could strain the heart.

  1. Weight Management

Keep your dog at a healthy weight to reduce the workload on their heart. Obesity can exacerbate CHF, so work with your vet to establish an appropriate diet and exercise plan.

Emotional Support for Pet Parents

Dealing with a diagnosis of congestive heart failure in senior dogs can be emotionally taxing for pet parents. It’s important to seek support and care for your well-being while managing your dog’s condition.

  1. Join a Support Group

Connecting with other pet parents facing similar challenges can provide comfort and practical advice. Online forums and local support groups can be valuable resources.

  1. Educate Yourself

Knowledge is power. The more you understand CHF and its management, the better you’ll be able to care for your dog. Senior Dog Revolution offers a wealth of information through our blog, podcast, and courses.

  1. Celebrate the Good Days

Focus on the positive moments and celebrate the good days with your dog. Cherish the time you have together and create happy memories.

  1. Consult a Professional

If you’re struggling emotionally, don’t hesitate to seek help from a mental health professional. Caring for a pet with a chronic illness can be challenging, and professional support can be beneficial.


While congestive heart failure in senior dogs is a common and serious condition, it is not always an immediate death sentence if caught early enough. With prompt diagnosis, effective treatment, and diligent care, many dogs that are early enough in the disease can continue to live comfortably and enjoy their golden years.

At Senior Dog Revolution, we’re dedicated to providing you with the resources and support you need to navigate this journey. Remember, every effort you make for your senior dog matters. By staying informed and proactive, you can make a significant difference in your dog’s life, ensuring they feel loved and cared for every step of the way.

We thank you for all you do for your senior dog and a warm welcome to our community. Together, we can revolutionize the care of senior dogs and help them live their best lives.


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Senior Dog Revolution

Welcome! We are so glad you are here! At SDR, we are firm believers that senior pets are the most inspiring animals in the world. And our mission is to help promote the needs of senior dogs and help pet parents create a life of health and happiness for their oldest canine friend.

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