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Pericardial Effusion In Dogs & Cats

What is pericardial effusion?

  • Pericardial effusion is the abnormal accumulation of fluid within the sac surrounding the heart (pericardium).
  • There is normally only a very small amount of fluid in that sac to protect the heart and provide lubrication to prevent friction between the moving heart and surrounding organs.
  • Pericardial effusion in dogs and cats usually causes fluid accumulation in the belly and causes symptoms of weakness, breathing difficulties, and sometimes collapse.

How is it diagnosed?

  • An echocardiogram (ultrasound or sonogram of the heart) by a veterinary cardiologist is the gold standard for definitive diagnosis.
  • Physical examination, chest x-rays, electrocardiograms and overall history can also assist in making the diagnosis of pericardial effusion.

What Causes Pericardial Effusion in Dogs & Cats?

  • The most common condition is bleeding from a tumor – some are aggressive and some are not.
  • If a tumor is seen, consultation with a veterinary oncologist is often recommended.
  • Infections and heart failure can also cause fluid to abnormally accumulate in the heart sac.
  • Sometimes there is no known cause (idiopathic) – up to two thirds of patients do not have an identifiable cause on initial examination.

What is the prognosis?

  • The outcome is widely variable and depends on the cause of the problem.
  • We are actively researching the utility of cardiac biomarkers to help discern the underlying cause of pericardial effusion.

How is Pericardial Effusion in Dogs & Cats treated?

  • Removal of the fluid within the pericardial sac (pericardial tap) may be required. This is done by inserting a catheter through the chest wall via ultrasound guidance and withdrawing the abnormal fluid present within the sac around the heart.
  • Surgical removal of the pericardium may be recommended in cases of recurrent pericardial effusion. This procedure results in a significant improvement in quality of life and long-term survival in these types of patients.


Heart Pericardium diagram
Diagram depicting the relationship between the pericardium and heart.

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