A heartbeat arrhythmia is a condition in which abnormal electrical activity in the heart causes the heart to beat in an abnormal pattern – either in rate or regularity. In and of itself, a cardiac arrhythmia does not necessarily indicate the presence of heart disease. Many dogs have arrhythmias that are not clinically significant and do not require treatment. Other dogs suffer from severe arrhythmic episodes that can be life threatening. If your dog has been diagnosed with an arrhythmia, the treatment plan will depend on what is causing the arrhythmia, and how severe the arrhythmia is.
If your dog’s irregular heartbeat is caused by an underlying condition, such as electrolyte imbalances, then this underlying condition must be addressed in order to treat the arrhythmia. In many cases the cause of the arrhythmia is unknown, and the arrhythmia may be controlled (but not really “treated” or “cured”) through use of medication.
Treatment with Medication
Some drugs used to control heart arrhythmias include digoxin and atropine, but there are many others as well. Digoxin is a substance that is extracted from the foxglove plant, and it is frequently used to treat heart conditions in animals and people. Atropine is often used in emergency situations or in instances where digoxin, calcium-channel blockers and beta-blockers are not available for use. Calcium-channel blockers (like Nifedipine and Verapamil) selectively block the influx of calcium into heart muscle and generally are used when an arrhythmia (irregular heart beat) needs to be slowed down. Beta-blockers act to decrease heart rate and the contractility of heart muscle. New medications are always being developed and researched, and your veterinary specialist is best qualified to assess your pet and help you decide on the right drug treatment protocol.
There are several advanced procedures that are now available for dogs with heart conditions. These procedures are expensive, and they must be performed by a specialist. They are not something to consider just because your dog has an irregular heartbeat. Your veterinary cardiology specialist is the one to discuss these possible options with you in detail.
The first procedure, called catheter ablation, basically destroys the presumably faulty electrical pathways around the heart that may be causing the heartbeat irregularities. This procedure is carried out by inserting catheters into the main blood vessels, moving the catheters towards the heart, using an electrical impulse to initiate an arrhythmia, and then destroying the tissue that is causing the arrhythmia.
The second procedure involvers placing a pacemaker near the dog’s heart. As in people, this procedure in dogs has been successful for controlling severe heartbeat arrhythmias.