How do I know my horse has a heart disease?

 

Heart diseases in horses often do not cause any obvious clinical signs. Therefore, it is most likely that you will not be able to pick up yourself when your horses suffers from heart disease. It is more likely that your primary care veterinarian will incidentally hear a heart murmur or irregular heart beat (arrhythmia) on a routine health check or a pre-purchase examination and refer you to us for further examination.

You might recognize that your horse does not perform to your expectations (anymore). While this can be an indication for a heart disease, poor performance is also a clinical sign of respiratory disease and diseases of the musculoskeletal system.

In cases where poor performance is not associated with a respiratory or musculoskeletal disease, or poor performance occurs in cases with a heart murmur or arrhythmia, your primary care veterinarian will refer you for further diagnostic work up.

Many horses with heart disease perform well and safe for their riders. However, progression to heart failure is possible even in younger horses. Typical signs of heart failure are lethargy, exercise intolerance, edema, rapid breathing, cough, and pulsating or congested veins. In such cases immediate diagnostic and therapeutic intervention is of utmost importance.

Why is it important to have a horse with a heart disease evaluated?

 

Most horses used for athletic purposes must perform at a certain level safely for their rider. Heart diseases may be performance limiting and, although rare, horses with heart disease may experience events of collapse and even sudden death. Therefore assessment of safety for riding, potential progression and impact on performance in the future are important parts of the diagnostic work up.

Further questions that may be necessary to address are quality of life, risk for general anesthesia or sedation and risk for use as a broodmare.

 

Based on physical examination and auscultation alone, it is very difficult or impossible for the veterinarian to differentiate between physiological and pathological abnormalities and to evaluate the severity of a heart disease. Therefore, a thorough cardiovascular examination including ultrasonographic examination of the heart (echocardiography) and ECG is indicated if a heart murmur or arrhythmia (irregular heart beat) is detected. 

"To see is to know, not to see is to guess and we won't guess with your horse's health"

What to expect during an examination of the cardiovascular system of your horse?

 

The examination of the cardiovascular system is performed in several steps and can conveniently be done in your home stables. No special preparation is required; your horse can be fed normally on the day of the examination. As we might suggest an exercise test, it is better to not do vigorous exercise before the examination. A duration of 60-90 minutes should be expected.

We will start with some questions regarding your horses level of performance and general health, followed by a clinical examination at rest with a focus on the cardiovascular system. We will then place an ECG device on your horse and record your horses heart beat. The ECG will be evaluated in real-time for obvious abnormalities and the recording will later be analyzed in detail. It might be necessary to perform an excercise test to evaluate your horses heart beat during exercise. We will discuss this with you on the day of examination.

The next step includes the ultrasonographic examination of the heart (echocardiography). It might be necessary to clip a small 5x5 cm area behind your horses elbow depending on the coat of your horse. The echocardiographic examination allows us to establish the origin of a potential heart murmur but more importantely allows the evaluation of the cardiac function, the anatomy and size of the heart chambers and the heart muscle. The heart will be scanned from different angles and with different modalities and a series of short recordings will be saved. Those recordings will be evaluated after the examination offline and measurements of the heart will be taken to be able to diagnose even subtle diseases. We will discuss all relevant information with you on site. In addition you will receive a comprehensive report once we have analyzed the recordings in detail.

What is a veterinary specialist?