New screening method may help detect heart disease in cats

September 13, 2019

Veterinarians were 100% successful at diagnosing severe heart disease in asymptomatic cats with a focused cardiac ultrasound, according to a recent Morris Animal Foundation-funded study.

A new study has found that focused cardiac ultrasound increases detection of cardiac issues in cats. (Image courtesy of Morris Animal Foundation)

A new screening technique may help detect heart disease in cats, according to a study published in the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine. Study findings revealed that focused cardiac ultrasound (FCU) increased detection of cardiac issues in asymptomatic cats. Early detection may prevent these cats from dying prematurely from heart disease.

“This [FCU] appears to be a very feasible and useful tool for general practitioners to accurately identify cats that would benefit from going to see a cardiologist,” says Janet Patterson-Kane, BVSc, PhD, FRCVS, Morris Animal Foundation Chief Scientific Officer in a press release. “Early detection is so important, not only for cats, but for the owners who love them."

Heart disease: Cats are dying at alarming rates

An estimated 20% of cats die from heart disease every year, largely because many of them don't have any visible signs of cardiac issues until it's too late, according to a Morris Animal Foundation release. Full echocardiograms can successfully detect heart problems, but most cats never receive one because of cost, lack of specialized training by general practitioners and cats' own lack of signs when they present to veterinary hospitals.

Why FCU may help save cats' lives

In humans, FCU-defined as a focused examination of the cardiovascular system that consists of an ultrasound and a physical examination-helps to detect several cardiac issues like left atrial enlargement and systolic dysfunction. Researchers wanted to find out if this technique could work in cats.

To evaluate the use of FCU by nonspecialist practitioners (NSPs) to detect important sonographic cardiac features characteristic of occult heart disease in cats, researchers from the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University conducted a multicenter cohort study.

Elizabeth Rozanski, DVM, DACVIM, DACVECC-Cummings' associate professor of respiratory disease, hematology, emergency and critical care-and her team taught 22 NSPs to perform FCUs on nearly 300 cats. None of the practitioners had any prior, formal cardiac ultrasound training. All cats were all at least 1 year old, and none had shown any clinical signs of heart disease, according to the release.

First, veterinarians performed standard physical examinations and electrocardiograms on each of the cats. Then they performed FCUs and were asked to indicate “yes,” “no” or “equivocal” as to whether they believed clinically significant heart disease was present. Finally, a board-certified cardiologist evaluated and diagnosed each cat.

Very promising results

The data show that veterinarians were 93% successful at diagnosing cats with moderate heart disease and 100% successful at diagnosing severe heart disease.

“Focused cardiac ultrasound performed by trained NSPs resulted in a significant improvement in agreement with a cardiologist's diagnosis as compared to NSP assessment based on physical examination and ECG alone, especially in cats with moderate or marked occult heart disease,” say the researchers.

Dr. Rozanski is already a big advocate of the technique. In fact, she has helped produce a video to teach veterinarians in general practice how to perform FCU and says that practitioners she trained are now using this technique on a regular basis.