Hypertension in Dogs: What’s Normal, What’s Not, How to Help

Hypertension, or high blood pressure, in dogs is a warning sign and complication of many canine diseases. Recognizing the signs can be tricky, especially as your dog ages. But knowledge is power and hypertension can be diagnosed and managed. Integrative veterinarian Dr. Julie Buzby equips you to be proactive in caring for a senior dog with hypertension.

What is hypertension in dogs

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. By the end of this article, you’ll know what is normal blood pressure for a dog, what is considered high, how hypertension is diagnosed, and treatment options.

What is blood pressure?

To understand hypertension in dogs, first we need to understand blood pressure. 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 or her cells are continuously supplied with life-sustaining oxygen and nutrients. Blood pressure that’s too low or too high presents problems, so knowing what’s normal is key.

What is normal blood pressure for a dog?

When looking at blood pressure values, there are usually two numbers: the top number (systolic blood pressure) and the bottom number (diastolic blood pressure). When assessing blood pressure, it is important to look at both of these numbers.

For dogs, normal systolic blood pressure is within a range of 110-160. Normal diastolic dog blood pressure is 60-90. This also might be written as the normal range is 110/60 to 160/90.

Also, there is a third number that you might hear your veterinarian mention. This is the MAP, or mean arterial pressure. The MAP is the average blood pressure through the whole body for one cycle of the heart pumping. The normal MAP blood pressure for dogs is 85-120.

What is high blood pressure in dogs?

So, what if a dog’s blood pressure is higher than those normal values? If this is the case, then your dog is experiencing high blood pressure (also called hypertension).

What is hypertension in dogs
If your dog’s blood pressure is higher than the normal range, they have hypertension.

Hypertension is often due to an underlying disease. But hypertension can also cause further disease, including damage to the brain, kidneys, and eyes.

Blood pressure is considered high if one of the three values (systolic, diastolic, or MAP) is elevated. So, high blood pressure in dogs is defined as blood pressure higher than 160/100. One or both of these numbers might be elevated.

High blood pressure in dogs can also be defined as a MAP higher than 120-140.

It’s important to note, some veterinarians may use slightly different numbers depending on how blood pressure is being measured and depending on your dog’s history.

What causes hypertension in dogs?

Now that you know what hypertension is, you are probably wondering what causes it? 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.

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Underlying causes of secondary hypertension

There are several canine diseases that can cause secondary hypertension. Some include:

  • Kidney failure in dogs
  • Diabetes
  • Adrenal gland disease
  • Cushing’s disease in dogs
  • Central nervous system disease (very rare cause)

If secondary hypertension develops, it can sometimes make the original underlying disease worse.

Also, 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.

What are the symptoms of hypertension in dogs?

If your dog suffers from one of the underlying diseases mentioned above, it is important that you monitor your furry friend at home. Signs of hypertension in dogs include:

  • Sudden blindness
  • Enlarged (dilated) pupils
  • Increased thirst in dogs
  • Increased urination
  • Blood in urine
  • A lethargic dog/ depression
  • Disorientation/ circling
  • Dog nose bleeds
  • Head tilt
  • Symptoms associated with heart disease and heart murmurs in dogs (coughing, collapse, weakness)
  • Seizures

If you notice any of these signs, you should consult your veterinarian immediately. Your vet will want to measure your dog’s blood pressure to see if he or she is in any danger from hypertension.

How is blood pressure measured?

What is hypertension in dogs
Photo credit: Dr. Kristi Busby, DVM, Blue Ridge Animal Clinic

Your dog’s blood pressure—and the way your veterinarian measures it—is similar to the way your doctor takes your pressure.

When you go to the doctor, often a nurse wraps a blood pressure 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).

Some veterinarians will measure blood pressure the same way, getting both a systolic and diastolic number. Other veterinarians will only measure their patients’ systolic blood pressure, since this is typically the number we care the most about.

Sometimes taking blood pressure on a dog can be a fine art. Cuffs can shift on a dog’s hair. Dogs might move and make the blood pressure cuff fall off. So, in order to get an accurate measurement, your veterinarian will take several blood pressure readings then average them together to arrive at a measurement.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Doppler: Placed over an artery below the cuff, the Doppler allows your veterinarian to hear the blood flowing with each pulsation. 
  3. 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.

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.

For a demonstration of how a dog’s blood pressure is taken at the veterinary office, watch the video below…

Watch Dr. Kristi Busby of Blue Ridge Animal Clinic in Alabama demonstrate and explain how veterinarians screen for hypertension in senior dogs. Video credit: Dr. Kristi Busby, DVM, Blue Ridge Animal Clinic.

PRO TIP: If a client comes to my office specifically to have a dog’s blood pressure checked, I do everything I can to avoid “white coat syndrome,” which happens in dogs just like humans. I prefer to put the patient and owner in an exam room for about twenty minutes for the dog to settle down before attempting a reading. I ask if my client would prefer the lights on or off, and I encourage him or her to play calming music on their phone. After a few minutes, most dogs have settled and will yield a more accurate result.

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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 American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine (ACVIM), routine blood pressure screening for young, healthy dogs is not recommended for two reasons:

  • Primary hypertension in dogs (meaning high blood pressure not secondary to another disease) 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:

  1. Routine blood pressure monitoring is very important if a dog has an underlying medical diagnosis which predisposes him or her to elevated blood pressure. Two good examples of this are renal (kidney) disease and Cushing’s syndrome in dogs.
  2. 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 in dogs.
  3. Routine blood pressure monitoring is also critically important for senior dogs. As a proactive dog parent, you know that early detection of health issues increases the opportunity for a successful outcome. In fact, the 2018 ACVIM consensus statement states,

What are the complications from hypertension in dogs?

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 for dogs. Organs typically affected by systemic hypertension include:

  • Brain: High blood pressure can cause depression, lethargy, anxiety, or seizures in dogs.
  • 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 the stages of kidney disease in dogs, 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.

What is hypertension in dogs
Dr. Chris Nettune, veterinary ophthalmologist, performing fundic exam of the retina to check for hypertension

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 is the treatment for hypertension in dogs?

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.

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Once your canine companion is on a good medication routine, your veterinarian will still want to check him or her regularly. It is important to continue to monitor blood pressure closely in case there are any changes in the pressures. If this happens, your veterinarian might need to adjust doses and medications again.

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 anxiety at night, has trouble sleeping, and is up pacing the house at all hours. Also, night time can increase the risk of senior dogs being disoriented or slipping while walking. One solution I suggest are Dr. Buzby’s ToeGrips® dog nail grips to help improve traction so your dear old dog doesn’t slip and fall. 

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 furry friend’s best interest:

  1. Checking your dog’s blood pressure is not as straightforward as say, checking 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 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.
  2. Also, I suspect human devices use a different algorithm than those designed for dogs. While this is 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.)
What is hypertension in dogs
Blood pressure cuff on a dog’s leg

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.

Prognosis

The prognosis for a dog with hypertension depends heavily on the underlying cause of the high blood pressure. For dogs with multiple, complicated diseases, the prognosis can be guarded. However, dogs who are well managed on medication, can do very well and continue to enjoy many years!

For the complications and risks to be minimized, it is important that you continue to closely monitor your dog and follow your veterinarian’s instructions exactly. Blood pressure medication is likely going to be needed for the remainder of your dog’s life. Follow-up monitoring and veterinary exams will be needed too.

The good news is that by partnering with your veterinarian, you and your dog can continue to create more special memories together.

You are most qualified to know when your dog is feeling off

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. ♥️

Does your beloved dog have hypertension?

Share your story and any tips and tricks you’ve discovered along the way.

References

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About the Author: Tung Chi