Veterinarian: Always Assess Equine Heart Murmurs

Veterinarian: Always Assess Equine Heart Murmurs

Lester said that while equine heart disease can be difficult to diagnose, the attending veterinarian should be able to suspect a cardiac problem based on auscultation, or listening to the heart with a stethoscope.

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Cardiac murmurs are common in horses, and it’s important to assess the impact any murmur on athletic performance and on rider and animal safety.

Speaking at the Australian Veterinary Association’s Annual Conference, taking place May 25-30 in Perth, Western Australia, Guy Lester, BVMS, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM, of Murdoch University, also in Western Australia, said cardiac murmurs are found in horses across a wide range of ages.

“There’s a range of techniques that can be used to assess cardiovascular function in horses including echocardiography (an ultrasound examination of the heart), field exercise testing, and lab tests," he said. “Exercise testing is important to determine if the murmur is associated with cardiac arrhythmia during exercise and if it’s appropriate for the level of work the horse is performing.

“Equine heart disease can be difficult to definitively diagnose, but the attending vet should have a high index of suspicion based on auscultation," Lester continued. "It’s important to use a good stethoscope, that’s properly maintained and positioned correctly. It’s highly unusual for significant cardiac disease to be present without a murmur, a change in heart rate or a change in heart rhythm."

Lester noted that veterinarians should assess heart murmurs for intensity, timing, loudness, and consistency.

“If heart disease is strongly suspected then an echocardiographic exam should be recommended, particularly if the murmur becomes louder over time or suddenly changes and there are other signs consistent with congestive heart failure on physical examination," he added.

“Most murmurs are relatively benign and have little impact of performance or life span," Lester concluded. "But horses with clinical signs of congestive heart failure or suspected pulmonary hypertension are unsafe to ride. Veterinarians must advise owners not to ride these horses and the risks involved if they do.”

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