As Maltese reach the double digits in age, it is not uncommon for them to develop a heart murmur. This condition is caused by turbulent blood flow within the heart. Usually the murmur is discovered when the vet routinely checks the chest with a stethoscope during the yearly wellness exam. Many owners are shocked at the news as there are usually no outward symptoms.
Murmurs are graded on a scale of 1 to 6. Grade 1 is barely audible while Grade 6 is loud and audible without the stethoscope touching the chest. A Grade 6 murmur can be felt when you place your hand on the chest in the area of the heart.
The vet will generally recommend a cardiac workup that typically includes blood work, x-rays, ultrasound, blood pressure and EKG.
Soft murmurs (up to Grade 3) usually do not require treatment and the dog appears fine. As the disease progresses, the dog can show signs of coughing or labored breathing, especially at night, and mild exercise intolerance.
Depending on the severity, a low-sodium diet and/or other medications to help ease the workload on the heart may be prescribed.
Not all heart murmurs progress to end stage (congestive heart failure). Many dogs will go on to live for years with few or even no outward signs. Fortunately, with proper diagnosis and monitoring, today's medications do a good job for those with a severe murmur.
Although an acquired heart murmur in an older dog can be associated with other types of heart disease, in most cases it is a condition in and of itself and most dogs do very well. The important thing is to be diligent with regular exams and be observant of any unusual signs that may indicate a hidden problem.