Everyone in the family knew Bailey had heart problems. Years before, the chihuahua had been diagnosed with a serious heart murmur, congestive heart failure and high blood pressure. Bailey was also taking three different medications daily, and they were helping. The family also restricted Bailey’s exercise, and everyone tried not to get him too excited.

“They were so good about it,” says Ally Loparo, whose boyfriend’s mother owned the small dog.

But then, Christmas 2018, Loparo was sitting around with her boyfriend and boyfriend’s mom. Mom had wrapped a squeaky dog toy in paper. She was sitting with Bailey. She squeaked the toy playfully. Bailey got excited about the chance to tear it off. Then, Bailey fell over on his side.

Loparo is a veterinary technician—she's now a veterinary hospital manager—and her boyfriend was a paramedic, so they didn’t panic.

“His mom, though, was screaming bloody murder,” Loparo says. “But I told her it would be fine.”

Previously trained in animal cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), Loparo assessed Bailey’s condition, pushed on Bailey’s chest to keep the blood flowing, and breathed into Bailey’s mouth to give lungs oxygen as they rushed the unconscious chihuahua to a veterinary hospital. Because animal CPR differs from human CPR, Loparo and other veterinary professionals discourage pet owners from doing animal CPR themselves without proper training. If animals wake up while people are breathing into their mouths, someone could get bit. And chest compressions on cats and dogs are different than chest compressions on humans and can cause damage to the lungs.

Loparo also did what some pet owners, in the heat of the moment, don’t do in an emergency event like this: Phone ahead and tell the hospital staff everything that had happened so far. When Bailey and the family arrived at Loparo’s hospital (what is now VCA 4 Paws Animal Hospital in San Diego, Calif.), doctors and veterinary technicians were ready to take Bailey straight back to the treatment area, start chest compressions and give oxygen right away.

What happened in Bailey’s cardiac event

Bailey had experienced a “syncopal event,” a medical term for fainting. There can be many causes, but in Bailey’s case, everyone figured it was the heart murmur or other issue with the heart: In that excited moment, Bailey’s heart skipped a beat, got off rhythm, or wasn’t pumping enough blood to Bailey’s head to keep him awake.

“You never really know what will set them off,” Loparo says. After the cardiac event, the family went further to make sure Bailey’s exercise was a little more moderate.

“When they'd take Bailey for walks, they’d even carry him around in a backpack to give him some fresh air, but avoid too much running around,” Loparo says.

The little chihuahua recovered remarkably well after the big Christmas scare, living another 2 happy, mostly healthy years, even with a heart murmur, cardiac disease and high blood pressure.

Managing pet heart health and cardiac disease

Unlike human patients, veterinary patients with heart problems don't often lead to surgery, says VCA 4 Paws Animal Director Dr. Morgan Thomas. Some conditions at birth can be correct with specialized surgeries, but often heart problems are managed, but never totally cured.

“The vast majority of cardiac cases are inoperable,” Dr. Morgan says. Medication, lifestyle changes and regular diagnostic work-ups are the go-to tools for veterinarians trying to help pets with heart problems live longer. An echocardiogram can be an especially important tool to diagnose heart conditions and evaluate your pet’s heart function. Diagnostics, especially for cats, are crucial, she says. Cats can go years without showing signs of worsening heart disease, but early detection can help.

Nutrition also plays a role in pets’ heart health. If a pet is overweight and diagnosed with a cardiac problem, veterinarians may recommend changes to the pet’s diet to lose weight. Obesity in both cats and dogs can lead to an increased risk of heart disease.

But you can’t overdo the worry either, says Dr. Morgan: “You want to manage the disease, but we don’t want you to become obsessed about it.”

Pets with heart conditions also need exercise, just not as vigorous. Dr. Morgan says it’s important to watch breathing or panting for changes. When you’re sitting down with your cat or dog, relaxed, count your pet’s heartbeats. Does it match the number for a resting heart rate you received from your veterinarian? If a pet with heart problems seems tired, assume they are and ease up. If they’re really excited, take them to a dark, quiet room to get comfortable and calm down.

Dr. Morgan also points owners with pets newly diagnosed with heart disease to Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine website on the subject: HeartSmart.

However, Dr. Morgan also counsels clients that this doesn’t need to lead to daily panic about a cat or dog enjoying themselves: “I want your bond with your pet intact. I want you to have good lives together.”

Do you suspect your pet has heart issues? Do previously diagnosed heart problems seem to be getting words? Need a hospital phone number on hand the next time an emergency crops up? Find your nearest VCA Hospital here.