Diagnosis of cardiac arrhythmias in dogs.

An electrocardiogram (EKG) is one of the best ways to look for an arrhythmia. Using small metal electrodes, your veterinarian can track the electrical activity of your dog’s heart. Variations in the overall speed, shape, height and width of the signal waveforms can indicate a number of cardiac abnormalities. Additional cardiac tests, such as radiographs or an anecardiogram (cardiac ultrasound), are also recommended to rule out heart disease.

In some cases, the arrhythmia does not occur frequently enough to be detected by a stethoscope or a rapid ECG reading. For these dogs, a Holter monitor is recommended. It comes in the form of a small vest that your dog can wear that records his ECG results for 24 hours.

Treatment of cardiac arrhythmias

Treatment is always recommended depending on the cause. Dogs with very slow heart arrhythmias (orrhythmias) usually require medications that speed up the heart rate, while dogs with very fast heart arrhythmias (tachyarrhythmias) require medications that slow down the heart rate.

In cases where medications cannot sufficiently speed up the heart, a veterinary cardiologist may surgically implant a pacemaker. Dogs with first- and second-degree heart block usually respond to medication or avoidance of the drug that caused the blockage, but dogs with third-degree heart block almost always require a pacemaker.

Dogs with severe structural heart disease are also prone to severe respiratory disease, and patients with acute respiratory distress need immediate medical attention. Cardiac medications are usually started while the animal is hospitalized and receiving oxygen.

In some cases, cardiac arrhythmias may be caused by other organ systems. Premature ventricular contractions, or PVCs, can occur in dogs with conditions such as gastric dilatation-volvulus or ruptured splenic tumor. Antiarrhythmic medications, such as lidocaine, are necessary to slow the heart, but ultimately the underlying primary condition must be treated to actually resolve the arrhythmia.

There are many types and causes of cardiac arrhythmias in dogs. It can be difficult to recognize when the arrhythmia is sporadic, but dogs with fulminant arrhythmias or heart disease are more likely to present with severe clinical signs, such as breathing difficulties. It is important to contact your veterinarian immediately in the event of such an emergency. If your veterinarian recommends an electrocardiogram based on test results, make it a priority to help find an early cause before it becomes a major problem for your puppy.

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