March is Canine Heart Health Month

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March marks the first-ever Canine Heart Health Month being held to raise awareness of canine heart disease – one of the leading causes of death in dogs. A February 2013 national survey shows that only half of dog owners (49 percent) have ever discussed their dogs' heart health with a veterinarian, and more than half of them (55 percent) had never heard of congestive heart failure in dogs.

The nationwide telephone survey of dog owners underscores the need for further education on the topic. The study also found that about a quarter of dog owners (24 percent) think heartworms in dogs and heart disease in dogs is the same thing – alarming, since heartworms are internal parasites and heart disease leads to heart failure, which is when a disease-weakened heart fails to pump enough blood to meet the body's needs. 

An educational website for dog owners, YourDogsHeart.com, houses comprehensive yet easy-to-follow information about canine heart disease. The online resource defines the condition and describes: the incidence of heart disease in dogs, which increases as they age; how veterinarians detect and diagnose heart problems; the risk factors and symptoms of heart disease; which dog breeds are predisposed to developing heart disease; and tips to keep dog hearts healthy.

A new website tool – the Resting Respiratory Rate (RRR) mobile app, available through the iTunes and Google Play Stores – helps pet owners and veterinarians detect the early signs of heart failure by tracking and comparing a dog's RRR over time. Data is uploaded directly to veterinarians, who must provide a dog's target breathing rate to pet parents and specify how often they should count their dogs' RRR.

The website also sponsors a Mobile Dog Heart Health Tour that provides free dog heart exams at special events across the country. The 2013 Tour will kick off March 1 in Kansas City, Mo., where a veterinary cardiologist – a designation held by only a handful of US veterinarians who are specially trained as canine heart health experts – will listen with a stethoscope to dog hearts and generally assess whether or not dogs show any signs of heart disease in a mobile exam room.

The Tour will make stops in the Western and Northeastern United States throughout 2013 to educate dog owners and improve dogs' lives. Since 2009, veterinary cardiologists with the Mobile Dog Heart Health Tour have checked more than 7,000 dog hearts and found a previously undetected heart murmur or other irregularity in about 20 percent of them. Information regarding the free dog heart exams will be posted on the website after event locations and dates are finalized.

"Early diagnosis and treatment of heart failure can significantly prolong and improve the quality of a dog's life," says Dr. Teresa DeFrancesco, a veterinary cardiologist board certified in cardiology and critical care who is an associate professor in the Department of Cardiology and Critical Care at North Carolina State University, College of Veterinary Medicine.

In another Canine Heart Health Month special initiative, Dr. DeFrancesco will conduct interviews with television news stations across the country on March 14 to help spread awareness of canine heart disease. She will discuss how doctors diagnose canine heart disease, the different types of heart disease, how to keep dogs healthy and the most common symptoms of heart disease: reduced willingness to walk or exercise, difficulty breathing, coughing, loss of appetite and weight loss.

"We look forward to informing dog owners about heart disease and treatment options. By emphasizing the importance of annual veterinary examinations and early diagnosis, we hope to help more dogs live longer and better lives," DeFrancesco said.