Early Screening for a Silent Killer

We are all too familiar with the epidemic of high blood pressure, aka. hypertension, in people, but most pet owners are not aware that hypertension is a common and potentially serious condition in dogs and cats.  Studies have concluded that up to ten percent of dogs over the age of 7, and a whopping twenty plus percent of cats over 7 suffer from hypertension.

High blood pressure, or hypertension, translates to an excess amount of pressure within the cardiovascular system.  The cause of hypertension with any given patient may range from any number of factors, from genetics and diet, to certain systemic diseases.  Often, there is a combination of factors leading to the hypertension.

The consequences of hypertension cannot be overstated.   The state of high pressure within the cardiovascular system overloads the heart.  Like any other muscle that gets stressed over time, the heart muscle under chronic stress also enlarges.  While we all love the concept of having big biceps, having an enlarged heart is not as inviting a concept.  Enlarged hearts do not contract as efficiently because the cardiac muscle is more stiff and rigid.  Enlarged hearts also have smaller chambers which cannot fill to capacity, thereby decreasing the overall volume of blood that can be pumped through the heart. 

To compensate the decreased volume, in order to facilitate adequate blood circulation to the tissues, stress hormones kick in to speed up the heart rate.  Stress hormones are meant to be reserved for times of fight or flight.  When they are activated as a normal part of everyday metabolism as they are in cases of hypertension and enlarged heart, stress hormones stress other organ systems reducing overall health.   A chronically increased heart rate further enlarges the heart as well as further complicates hypertension.  The result of all of this is a vicious cycle of increasingly poor health that creates a ticking time bomb of poor health, where a pet can sustain life threatening blood clots, congestive heart failure, and other serious health complications.

For all of the above reasons, at my clinic, Maybeck Animal Hospital, we administer blood pressure screening for every patient 8 years or older as part of the standard yearly physical examination, as well as any patient presenting with abnormal heart rhythm or heart murmur.  Not only does this type of screening help us to catch hypertension well before it has caused significant irreversible damage to the body, it also serves as a disease screening tool.  For example, over 87% of cats with chronic kidney failure and 65% of cats with hyperthyroidism present with hypertension.  As such, a patient showing hypertension on routine blood pressure screening may prompt the veterinarian to run blood work and possibly reveal underlying systemic disease to allow for early intervention. 

Treatment of hypertension can sometimes be treated with simple nutritional and dietary management (low sodium diet in combination with omega-3-fatty acids supplementation).  In more advanced cases, a daily blood pressure lowering medication may be added to the patient’s overall health management program.  In cases where hypertension is occurring secondary to underlying systemic or primary cardiac disease, all the above may be need to be implemented, as well as management of the primary disease process.

Screening for hypertension is one of many reasons to choose comprehensive animal hospitals for routine well visits over discount veterinary clinics or mobile clinics that pull up at pharmacy and gas station parking lots (so called “shot wagons”).  In these types of venues, physical examination by a licensed veterinarian is often not even performed, let alone blood pressure screening.  
At Maybeck Animal Hospital, we use a blood pressure screening device called the Pet MAP, a 2 minute, painless, screening tool that can make a big difference in the overall quality of life and longevity or your pets.

Dr. Roger Welton is the President of Maybeck Animal Hospital and CEO/Chief Editor of the veterinary information and blog online community, Web-DVM.

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