Do Dogs Get High Blood Pressure?

Also known as hypertension, high blood pressure is now starting to be recognized as a severe health condition in dogs. High blood pressure is often secondary to other conditions such as problems with the lungs or adrenal glands. No matter the cause, hypertension is a serious health concern, and if untreated, it can result in stroke, heart attack, kidney failure, blindness, and eventually death.

What is hypertension?

A little anatomy lesson might be in order here. The heart is really nothing more than a pump that takes in the venous blood returning from the body tissues, sends it to the lungs to be re-oxygenated, and then sends it out to the body to give oxygen to the cells and tissues. When we measure the blood pressure, we take two readings, the systolic or top number represents the pressure created when the heart is actively contracting to push blood out, while the diastolic pressure is the force with which the blood flows when the heart is at rest between contractions.

The ideal blood pressure for dogs is 147/83. Anything significantly higher than that can cause problems.

Sad dog on couch
High blood pressure is a serious health condition.

What causes hypertension?

One of the best ways to understand high blood pressure is to think about the flow of blood in terms of your garden hose. If you turn the water on full blast, you will have higher water pressure than if you turn the spigot only halfway. In the same way, high blood volume will cause higher blood pressure. If the dog's kidneys are not working properly, the dog will retain water and cause the blood pressure to rise.

Once you have the spigot open, the water will continue to go through the hose at a steady rate. However, if you put a kink in the hose or constrict the water flow in some way, the pressure behind the kink will build. In the same way, if your dog's arteries constrict or become blocked, the blood pressure will rise. Because dogs don't live as long as we do, it's rare for them to have narrowing of the arteries due to high cholesterol as humans do. But a disease of the adrenal glands known as Cushing's Disease can cause the arteries to narrow, which has basically the same effect on the blood pressure.

What happens when my dog's blood pressure is too high?

Again, think of this in terms of your garden hose. If you have the water turned on full blast and you put a kink in your hose and left it that way, you might expect the pressure to build up to the point that the hose would eventually burst. In the same way, as blood pressure builds, the dog's arteries begin to take a beating. The organs most sensitive to high blood pressure are the brain, the eyes, the kidneys, and the heart.

In the brain, when small vessels begin to burst due to increased pressure, it causes a stroke. When the blood leaks out of burst vessels and into the skull, it has two effects. First of all, the brain cells are not being fed because the blood is no longer flowing through the vessels. Secondly, because the skull is a closed vessel, the leaked blood and swelling of the dying brain cells causes intracranial pressure to rise, which kills even more brain cells in a vicious cycle. The nerves that feed the eyes are affected in the same way.

The kidneys are important as both a potential cause of hypertension and as an organ that can be affected by hypertension. The kidneys have a lot of small blood vessels that interact with the kidney's cells to filter the blood and remove wastes. When these blood vessels get torn up by the pounding pressure of hypertension, the kidneys become less able to provide filtration, and kidney failure can result.

As blood pressure rises, the heart must work harder and harder to circulate blood. As a result, like any muscle, the heart grows as it works harder. The problem is that when the heart muscle thickens, it makes the interior chambers of the heart get smaller. With each relaxation cycle between beats of the heart, less blood flows into the chamber to be pumped out with the next contraction. The body still needs the same volume of blood, so the heart must beat faster and faster to keep up with the need.

In addition, the blood vessels that feed the heart are impacted by the higher pressure and can break down under the strain. When these vessels break down, the heart muscle doesn't get enough fuel (oxygen) to function properly, which can cause a heart attack.

How is high blood pressure diagnosed?

You don't often see your veterinarian taking your dog's blood pressure, although it is possible to do so. It is relatively rare for a dog to develop high blood pressure in the absence of other diseases, so checking blood pressure routinely is not often helpful.

When a dog is diagnosed with a disease such as adrenal dysfunction or kidney failure, your vet will likely become much more concerned with monitoring and controlling blood pressure. The equipment to monitor a dog's blood pressure is somewhat similar to that used in humans, but a transducer is used in place of a stethoscope to "hear" the sound produced by the blood flowing through the limbs.

How is canine hypertension treated?

The first line of treatment is to take care of the underlying disease which caused the hypertension. Kidney function must be restored and endocrine problems are treated, usually with hormones. In addition, the blood pressure can be brought down with medications that control the heart rate, reduce blood volume (like turning the spigot part of the way closed), and dilate blood vessels to reduce their resistance (like removing the kink from the garden hose).

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