A dog gets her heart checked.

Earlier this month, our elderly 13-year-old chihuahua got up as normal. He conducted his usual 9:30AM freak out, which involves finding some random object to beat up, nom on, and then race around the house with. Everything appeared to be well.

Around noon, he started to cough. By that night, he was struggling to breathe, and we were searching for emergency vets. In our area there are long waits for everything, including emergencies. We finally found an ER the following morning, at which points he was alternately coughing and gasping.

My husband rushed him to the ER, an hour away, where he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. They sent him home with 4 different medications and a very grim diagnosis. If he survived the weekend, he would have just 6 months to live.

What is Congestive Heart Failure?

Congestive heart failure is where your dog’s heart becomes enlarged. When this happens, it is much harder for your dog’s heart to pump blood around their body. As a direct result of this, fluid and blood begin to back up into the lungs and heart.

This is why Rocco was coughing and struggling to breathe. He was essentially drowning in his own fluids from a heart not strong enough to do its job. We were actually lucky. Some dogs simply drop dead. Others may faint or collapse.

Congestive heart failure is a terrible disease but understanding it can help us treat it, and potentially avoid it when selecting our next dog.


Let’s talk about preventing Congestive Heart Failure in the first place. Our dog Rocco very likely came from some kind of BYB situation. We will never know his full story, but he has unfortunately got the short end of the stick genetics wise. He has had a heart murmur since he was a puppy and slipping patellas in both knees.

While there is no certain way to prevent congestive heart failure, the chances can be reduced by eliminating any defects of the heart your pet may have. This means that if you choose to get a puppy from a breeder, choose a puppy that has been health tested for genetic defects of the heart, or choose heart break later in life.

There are plenty of quality breeders out there who genetically health test their dogs and breed for sturdy knees, strong hearts, good eyes, and healthy puppies. If you’re not getting a health tested chihuahua, get a shelter dog. Don’t put money in the hands of people who breed with no thought of what horrors that pup will experience due to poor breeding.

Supporting Heart Health

Although we couldn’t prevent Rocco from getting congestive heart failure, we were able to put it off until he was 13. I believe part of this was being aware of his heart problems, and addressing these through lifestyle and diet. Here’s a few ways we’ve supported Rocco’s heart health over the years:

  • Keep a Healthy Weight

The heavier a dog is, the more work the heart has to do to pump blood around the body. Although Rocco’s weight has increased as he’s gotten older, we’ve worked hard to keep him from getting obese even in his senior years.

  • Heart Supplements
    We all know certain nutrients are good for human hearts, but did you know that these same nutrients are good for your dog’s too? Taurine, carnitine, coenzyme Q10, and omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids are all good for supporting your dog’s health.

    We went into more detail about heart supplements here. Right now, we are working with our dog’s veterinarian to decide which of these to supplement, and where meal modifications can be done.
  • Exercise
    Regular exercise, even if it is just a sedate stroll around the neighborhood, is essential for good heart health—especially if your dog already has heart disease. A walk can help reduce your dog’s blood pressure and their cortisol levels, promoting overall heart health.

    This does not mean dogs with heart disease should be put on a treadmill. Extreme activity can actually make things worse. Pay attention to your pet’s behavior on walks and tailor it to their needs.

If a dog has to sit down and rest on the walk, the walk was too long. Shorten it next time. If your dog is ahead of you on the walk and enjoying their time, this may well be just right.

  • Nutrition

Finally, what you feed your dog matters. Dogs should be kept on a low sodium diet, ideally with heart-friendly nutrients a normal part of his everyday food. We found out that bites of cheeseburger—a favorite of his—actually may have salt sprinkled on the patty as flavoring. We swapped him to his very own steak bites instead, no salt added.

He already eats a home cooked diet tailor made to his nutritional needs, one that is naturally high in nutrients like Taurine and L-Carnitine, but we added a few supplements that may help him live a little longer. We also looked into other aspects of heart health, such as the recent FDA investigation into whether grain-free diets could be a cause of heart problems. You can read our thoughts on this here.

The Outlook

While congestive heart failure is certainly a new era for your dog, it doesn’t have to mean the end. Medication to help support heart health along with lifestyle changes can often help extend your pet’s life.

If your dog has been diagnosed with congestive heart failure, it’s important to work closely with your veterinarian. They can help you come up with a plan to keep your pet healthy, as well as follow up testing to make sure the rest of your dog’s organs are functioning well.

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By Andrea

Andrea is a dedicated dog mom of three chihuahuas. She has over a decade of experience as a dog groomer, chihuahua owner, and more recently as a dog trainer. She loves all things canine, particularly chihuahuas.

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