ASK THE VET: Simple blood test can diagnose heart disease in cats

Q: Rambo, my 2-year-old cat, was breathing fast during his annual wellness exam. His veterinarian said his rapid breathing could be due to stress, heart disease or a respiratory condition such as asthma.

She did a blood test called NT-proBNP which indicated that he could have heart disease, and she referred me to a cardiologist who confirmed that Rambo has cardiomyopathy. Now he takes medicine to improve his heart function and prolong his life.

I'm grateful my veterinarian recognized the possibility that Rambo might have heart disease and that she did the NT-proBNP test. How does this blood test reveal heart disease?

A: Heart muscle cells produce small amounts of a hormone called BNP and its inactive precursor, NT-proBNP. Heart disease causes the heart to enlarge and the heart muscle cells to stretch, which makes them secrete more of these chemicals.

NT-proBNP is more stable than BNP, and the magnitude of the NT-proBNP elevation reflects the severity of heart disease.

So, veterinarians use it as a marker for heart enlargement, heart disease and congestive heart failure.

The most common type of heart disease in cats is cardiomyopathy, which rarely produces clinical signs. Surprisingly, 15% of ostensibly healthy cats have cardiomyopathy. The prevalence of heart disease is even higher in Maine coon cats and the Persian, ragdoll and sphynx breeds.

When cardiomyopathy does produce clinical signs, those may consist of abnormal breathing, an erratic heart rhythm or a heart murmur. More often, cats with cardiomyopathy die suddenly or develop a blood clot that lodges in an artery to the back legs, causing severe pain and inability to walk.

Your veterinarian likely saved Rambo's life during what started out as just a routine wellness exam.

Q: During the dry fall and winter seasons, people who visit our house and pet our dog Winston often shock him with static electricity. He is beginning to distrust people, sometimes raising his lip when they reach to pet him. What can we do?

A: Adding moisture to the air works wonders, so have a whole-house humidifier installed in your house, or buy smaller humidifiers for the rooms Winston frequents.

Until then, spritz Winston and the carpeting in your home with water, or wipe Winston with a damp washcloth or pet wipe. Also, you and your guests can discharge static electricity by touching something else before you pet Winston.

Bathe Winston with a moisturizing shampoo and then apply a pet creme rinse or moisturizer spray. Use an anti-static spray on your clothes, shoes and carpeting.

You also can wipe a dryer sheet across Winston's coat, as long as he doesn't lick himself. Some dryer sheets and anti-static sprays contain ingredients that cause mouth sores and stomach upset in pets that ingest them when they lick themselves.

To help Winston rebuild trust, have your friends drop a small treat on the floor near themselves so he is rewarded as he approaches them. Then, they can offer a treat from their hands, but only after they've touched something to discharge any static electricity before it shocks Winston. Finally, as long as he's relaxed and willing, they can pet him while they give him a treat.

Lee Pickett, VMD, practices companion animal medicine in North Carolina. Contact her at