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Pericardial Effusion in Dogs & Cats

Pericardial effusion can be very dangerous for your pet so it's important to know what to look out for and when you should bring your pet into VRCC. Today, our Englewood vets will explain pericardial effusion in dogs and cats, the causes and symptoms, and how it's treated.

What Is Pericardial Effusion?

Pericardial effusion refers to the abnormal accumulation of fluid within the pericardial sac.

The pericardial sac, or pericardium, is a sac that surrounds the heart. Normally, this sac contains a very small amount of clear fluid, to provide lubrication and help the heart slide within the sac. In pericardial effusion, an excessive amount of fluid accumulates within the pericardial sac, interfering with the heart’s ability to pump effectively.

Note: Pericardial effusion is more common in certain dog breeds. German Shepherds, Boxers, Golden Retrievers, Bulldogs, Boston Terriers, French Bulldogs, Afghan Hounds, Salukis, and Weimaraners may be at increased risk of pericardial effusion because each of these breeds is at higher risk of conditions that may lead to pericardial effusion.

Causes Pericardial Effusion?

Pericardial effusion can have several underlying causes.

Some cases are caused by tumors. These tumors may be located within the heart or on the pericardium.

Pericardial effusion can also be caused by inflammation of the pericardium. Pericardial inflammation may be caused by infection or may be caused by idiopathic (undeterminable) inflammation of the pericardium.

Other causes of pericardial effusion include:

  • trauma
  • clotting disorders
  • rupture of the left atrium of the heart
  • congestive heart failure

Symptoms Of Pericardial Effusion?

Signs of pericardial effusion can vary dramatically, depending on the severity and time course of the condition.

Early signs often include abdominal fluid accumulation and the resulting visible abdominal enlargement and exercise intolerance. In some cases, fainting may be noted with physical exertion.

Cough and decreased appetite may also be observed. If pericardial effusion persists at mild levels over a long period, affected dogs may also develop muscle wasting.

In severe cases, especially with an acute onset of disease, pericardial effusion may cause sudden collapse and death with no prior signs.

How Is Pericardial Effusion Diagnosed?

Your vet may notice several findings that suggest pericardial effusion. Affected dogs often have pale gums and weak pulses. Breathing may be labored, with an abnormally elevated respiratory rate. Muffled heart sounds, caused by the fluid that has accumulated around the heart, may be heard when your vet listens to your cat’s heart.

Other findings may include liver enlargement, abdominal fluid, and fluid accumulation under the skin; all of these findings are due to the heart’s inability to push blood normally throughout the body.

If your vet suspects pericardial effusion, several tests will likely be performed. These tests may include:

  • Bloodwork (complete blood cell count and serum biochemical profile).
  • Blood pressure measurement
  • Chest radiographs (X-rays)
  • Electrocardiography (ECG)
  • An ultrasound of the heart 
  • Fluid analysis

How Is Pericardial Effusion Treated?

When possible, pericardial effusion is treated by addressing the underlying disease. This is especially true if the effusion is associated with heart failure, left atrial rupture, clotting disorders, or hypoalbuminemia. All of these conditions can be managed medically, which typically resolves the pericardial effusion.

If your dog is critically ill due to cardiac tamponade, your vet may attempt to remove the fluid surrounding the heart. This procedure is called pericardiocentesis. Pericardiocentesis may be performed with or without ultrasound guidance. It is important to understand that pericardiocentesis does not cure pericardial effusion; the underlying cause of the effusion must still be addressed because it is likely to recur. This procedure can, however, increase your dog’s chances of surviving the initial emergency period.

If the pericardial effusion is associated with a tumor, treatment options vary depending on the type of tumor that is present. Surgery may be attempted in some cases, while other patients may be treated with chemotherapy.

If the pericardial effusion is associated with a peritoneopericardial diaphragmatic hernia, surgery is required to correct the hernia.

Note: The advice provided in this post is intended for informational purposes and does not constitute medical advice regarding pets. For an accurate diagnosis of your pet's condition, please make an appointment with your vet.

If your dog is experiencing any medical condition requiring surgery that your primary vet may not be prepared to manage, please contact our Englewood vets to learn more about what we offer and how we may be able to help.

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VRCC Veterinary Specialty & Emergency Hospital in Englewood is always accepting new patients! Our board-certified specialists and emergency veterinarians are passionate about restoring good health to Denver Metro area pets.

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