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Heart Disease In Rabbits, Ferrets, Guinea Pigs And Other Small Animal Pets

What does heart disease do to small animal pets, and what are the signs of a problem?

Leticia Materi, PhD, DVM
Posted: September 22, 2015, 5 p.m. EDT

chinchilla in cage
Via Marisol Lepe/Flickr  
This chinchilla is healthy, but if your chinchilla or other small animal pet becomes lethargic, can't handle exercise or suffers any other symptoms of heart trouble, see your veterinarian.

Cardiac disease is a condition that typically strikes older pets. With respect to exotic mammals, there has been relatively little published about this topic compared to dogs and cats. However, I have personally treated various species for heart disease including rabbits, ferrets and chinchillas. While it may not be as common as in dogs and cats, it can occur and there are some signs of trouble that owners should be aware of. 

What The Heart Does
In order to understand why these symptoms occur, understanding the function of the heart and how it works is helpful.

The heart is a muscular organ whose primary job is to pump blood throughout the body. Functionally it is divided into two sides. Each side contains an atrium that receives blood and a ventricle that pumps blood out. The atria and the ventricles are separated by valves that open and close, thus forcing blood forward when the heart contracts. The right atrium receives blood that has passed through the tissues of the body and is depleted of oxygen. The right ventricle then sends the blood to the lungs to help replenish oxygen stores. The oxygen rich blood returns to the left atrium and is delivered to the body when the left ventricle contracts.

chinchilla X-ray
Courtesy of Leticia Materi, PhD, DVM  
This chinchilla has fluid accumulation around the heart that makes it difficult to determine the actual size, but because the trachea is pushed up, we know the heart is enlarged.

What Happens When The Heart Falters
When the heart begins to fail, delivery of oxygen and other vital nutrients falters. Also, blood begins to "back up” in the blood vessels. This leads to fluid leakage into tissues. Various parts of the heart can be damaged by disease, including the cardiac muscle itself or the valves between the heart chambers. Unfortunately, cardiac muscle cells do not regenerate when damaged.

Signs Of Heart Trouble
The clinical signs that small animal pet owners will see include:
  • Exercise intolerance
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Weakness/lethargy
  • Coughing
  • Blue mucous membranes
  • Fainting
  • Reduced appetite/weight loss
  • Sudden death
  • Rabbits often show bilateral bulging of the eyes

Diagnosing Heart Trouble In Small Animal Pets
On physical examination, a veterinarian may notice an irregular heart rhythm (arrhythmia) or a murmur. Normally, there is a very sharp sound when the heart beats that is often described as  "lub-dub.” With a murmur, the sound is more like a "whoosh.” This suggests that the blood is not flowing steadily in one direction but that there is turmoil to the flow. This can happen because the valves do not snap shut tightly when closed, there is a hole between the two sides of the heart or the blood is very thin (i.e., anemia). 

I have heard benign murmurs in baby guinea pigs that often disappear by adulthood. There have also been reports that many chinchillas have benign murmurs. A benign murmur does not appear to produce clinical signs but should be noted and monitored closely.

Treatment For Heart Problems
Follow-up testing includes radiographs (X-rays), ultrasound and electrocardiogram (ECG). An ECG is a method for monitoring the electrical activity of the heart. Medications can be used to alleviate the signs of heart disease. These medications help drain fluid and/or reduce the workload on the heart.

Heart disease can be life-threatening. Consult your veterinarian for more information.

rabbit X-rays
Courtesy of Leticia Materi, PhD, DVM  
Both images show X-rays of a rabbit heart, and the highlight indicates the approximate size.

Note: All articles by Dr. Materi are meant for educational purposes only and in no way represent any particular individual or case. They are not for diagnostic purposes. If your pet is sick, please take him or her to a veterinarian.

Posted: September 22, 2015, 5 p.m. EDT

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