Hypertension is a diagnosis no one wants to hear from the mouth of their healthcare professional—be it your own primary care physician or your beloved dog’s trusted veterinarian. But knowledge is power and hypertension can be diagnosed and managed. Read on as Julie Buzby, integrative veterinarian and founder of Dr. Buzby’s ToeGrips®, equips you to be proactive in caring for a senior dog with hypertension.
Hypertension, or high blood pressure, in dogs is a warning sign and complication of many canine diseases—but recognizing the signs can be tricky, especially as your dog ages.
If you notice your dog is slowing down or exhibiting changes in behavior, how can you differentiate between normal signs of aging and something more serious like hypertension?
Knowledge is the best line of defense, so let’s break down all things hypertension: what’s normal, what’s not, how it’s diagnosed, its effect on your dog, and your treatment options.
What is normal blood pressure for a dog?
By definition, blood pressure is the measurement of the force your dog’s blood exerts against his blood vessel walls. Adequate pressure is critical to maintaining blood flow to your dog’s organs so that his cells are continuously supplied with life-sustaining oxygen and nutrients. Blood pressure that’s too low or too high present problems, so knowing what’s normal is key.
The best way to find this out is to take your dog for regular physical exams.
Your dog’s blood pressure—and the way your veterinarian measures it—is similar to the way your doctor takes your pressure with one major difference.
When you visit the doctor, your doctor wraps a cuff around your arm measuring two different values: systolic and diastolic blood pressure. Systolic blood pressure measures the maximum force of blood against your artery walls while your ventricles squeeze pushing blood to the rest of your body. Your diastolic blood pressure measures the minimum force of blood against your artery walls as your heart relaxes and your ventricles refill with blood. Your blood pressure is then read as your systolic pressure (top number) over your diastolic blood pressure (bottom number).
While there are different measurement methods for dogs, the method I use for my patients measures only systolic blood pressure, which is typically the number we care about. Normal systolic blood pressure for a dog falls in the 120-130 mmHg range.
How is hypertension diagnosed in dogs?
Your veterinarian can easily check your dog’s blood pressure during an office visit using three pieces of equipment:
- Blood pressure cuff: The inflatable cuff is wrapped around your dog’s leg. It is temporarily filled with air to block blood flow through an underlying artery.
- Doppler: Placed over an artery below the cuff, the Doppler allows your veterinarian to hear the blood flowing with each pulsation.
- Sphygmomanometer: As the cuff deflates, the sphygmomanometer measures the pressure. The pressure at which blood flow resumes through the artery is your dog’s systolic blood pressure.
PRO TIP: If a patient comes to my office specifically for a blood pressure check, I do everything I can to avoid “white coat syndrome,” which happens in dogs just like humans. I prefer to put the dog and owner in an exam room for about twenty minutes for the dog to settle down before attempting a reading. I ask if they would prefer the lights on or off, and I encourage them to play calming music on their phone. After a few minutes, most dogs have settled and will yield a more accurate result.
Your veterinarian will take several blood pressure readings then average them together to arrive at a measurement. Systolic blood pressure higher than 160 mmHg poses a significant risk of damage to various organs within your dog’s body. Referred to as target-organ damage (TOD), blood pressure this high needs to be addressed immediately.
Is blood pressure monitoring part of a healthy dog’s regular veterinary visit?
When you go to your doctor, you probably have your blood pressure checked as part of a routine screening. This is not necessarily the case for all of our canine companions. In fact, according to the ACVIM consensus statement on systolic blood pressure, routine blood pressure screening for young, healthy dogs is not recommended because:
- Primary hypertension (meaning high blood pressure not secondary to another disease) in dogs is much less common than in people.
- There is a high likelihood of false elevated pressures when screening nervous, excited animals in the veterinary office.
However, there are some important exceptions to this that are critical to call out:
- Routine blood pressure monitoring is very important if a dog has an underlying medical diagnosis which predisposes him to elevated blood pressure. Two good examples of this are renal disease and Cushing’s syndrome in dogs.
- Routine blood pressure monitoring is very important when a dog is on certain medications that impact blood pressure. Proin, a commonly prescribed urinary incontinence drug, is one example of a medication that may cause hypertension.
- Routine blood pressure monitoring is also critically important for senior dogs. You know that early detection of health issues increases the opportunity for a successful outcome. In fact, the 2018 ACVIM consensus statement states,
…It is reasonable to institute annual screening of cats and dogs equal to or over nine years of age.”
How can hypertension affect your dog?
Hypertension itself will not cause problems for your dog. However, consistently high blood pressure, or systemic hypertension, will likely cause target-organ damage (TOD) which can have dangerous consequences. Organs typically affected by systemic hypertension include:
- Brain: High blood pressure can cause depression, lethargy, anxiety, or seizures.
- Eyes: High pressure in ocular vessels can lead to bleeding in the back of the eye or retinal detachment causing sudden blindness.
- Kidneys: Hypertension can accelerate kidney disease, causing protein loss in the urine and toxin build-up in your dog’s blood. This leads to more lethargy, vomiting, and loss of appetite.
- Heart and blood vessels: Hypertension can lead to congestive heart failure. This causes fluid in your dog’s lungs which impedes breathing and oxygen delivery.
Cognitive dysfunction, vision problems, kidney disease, and heart failure already affect many senior dogs. Hypertension can worsen these conditions.
For example, if your dog’s kidneys are slowly failing, high blood pressure can speed up the decline. If your dog has canine cognitive dysfunction, hypertension can contribute to already-present confusion and anxiety. Also, it can be particularly challenging to detect changes in dogs with cognitive dysfunction since these dogs often have little quirks you have grown accustomed to (and probably find quite endearing, too).
What causes hypertension in dogs?
Systemic hypertension falls into two main categories:
- Primary hypertension: Rarer of the two, this is high blood pressure that is not attributed to an underlying cause.
- Secondary hypertension: Most cases of hypertension in dogs present secondarily to a primary disease that alters blood pressure. Many dogs with kidney failure, Cushing’s disease, and diabetes develop secondary hypertension that can worsen their underlying condition.
Did you notice that these diseases are all common in senior dogs? That means older dogs are at high risk of developing hypertension, so you’ll want to look-out for its signs.
Can a dog parent check a dog’s blood pressure at home?
As your dog’s biggest advocate, you may be wondering if you can monitor your dog’s blood pressure at home using a human blood pressure cuff.
This is a controversial issue.
After polling some of my veterinary colleagues, the general consensus was “no.” Here’s why at-home blood pressure monitoring may not be in your dog’s best interest:
- Checking your dog’s blood pressure is not as straightforward as say, checking his blood sugar levels (which I am a big fan of monitoring at home). With the latter, you have two straightforward tasks: get a tiny amount of blood and insert it into a machine for reading. With checking his blood pressure, the learning curve is higher and there is more room for error. For example, if the cuff size is wrong and/or incorrectly placed, results will be dramatically skewed.
- I also suspect human devices use a different algorithm than those designed for dogs. While an unconfirmed hunch, I do know most veterinarians wouldn’t make adjustments to medications based on DIY readings alone. It is too much liability and it may not be in the best interest of your dog. (Until proven accurate, I would not recommend human machines for the job.)
Finally, one of my veterinary colleagues shared a cautionary story of a dog who was diagnosed with hypertension by two veterinary facilities. Both facilities recommended treatment for the dog.
The dog’s parent (a human physician) doubted the diagnosis, bought a human pediatric monitor and began monitoring the dog. Based on his DIY readings, he chose not to start his dog on blood pressure medication.
Over time, my veterinary colleague watched as the dog developed organ disease consistent with signs of hypertension (TOD). Sadly, my colleague believes high blood pressure was a contributing factor to the dog’s demise.
However, you, your dog, and your veterinarian make a great team. If your dog has hypertension, there are many treatment options to help manage this condition under the guidance of your veterinarian.
Treatment for hypertension
Once your veterinarian reaches the conclusion that your dog has hypertension, treatment can help maintain normal blood pressure. The goal is to decrease the likelihood of TOD and optimize your dog’s quality of life.
Many medications are available to manage high blood pressure. Finding the right treatment for your dog may take some trial and error. Your veterinarian will likely prescribe medication for your dog and recheck his blood pressure to see if it is working. Dosage adjustments and medication changes may be necessary for your vet to find the right treatment for your dog.
In addition to managing blood pressure, it’s important to make your dog’s environment as comfortable and safe as possible. Behavior changes and anxiety brought on by hypertension may not fully resolve with treatment, particularly in dogs with cognitive dysfunction.
You may find that your senior dog has trouble sleeping and is up pacing the house at night. Increased anxiety may cause her to wander your hallways during the day. Dr. Buzby’s ToeGrips® dog nail grips can improve traction so your pooch doesn’t slip and fall.
You are most qualified to care for your dog
As you spend time with your senior dog, be sensitive to changes in attitude, behavior, and eating habits. You are the person most qualified to recognize when your dog is feeling off. If you notice changes in your dog, even if they are slight, alert your veterinarian immediately to discuss the need for an office visit and physical examination. Ultimately the goal is to prevent further decline and preserve your dog’s quality of life. ♥️
Ready for more ways to help your dog live the happiest, healthiest life possible?
Get Dr. Buzby’s latest tips, articles, and promotions. Plus, receive a FREE e-book Seven Ways to Love Your Senior Dog!
Does your beloved dog have hypertension?
Share your story and any tips and tricks you’ve discovered along the way.