A gerbil’s heart rate is very high, so its heart already works extremely hard. Any animal with a heart can have a heart attack (also knowns as myocardial infarctions or acute myocardial infarctions.)
Heart attacks in gerbils can happen when the blood supply to the heart tissue is stopped. This can occur due to blood clots, spasms, or other blockages in the artery. This causes a sudden heart attack, where some of the heart muscle dies. Heart failure, where the heart isn’t strong enough to pump blood properly, follows.
Some species of gerbil are prone to heart attacks. According to PLoS One, gerbils are susceptible to diabetes and obesity. Both of these conditions can cause heart failure in the long term.
Heart Attacks in Gerbils
A heart attack is a serious medical issue, where the blood supply to the heart stops. The usual cause of restricted blood flow is a blood clot. The clot gets big enough that it blocks the blood vessel it’s in, and blood can’t get past.
To be clear, a heart attack is where the blood supply to the heart stops, not when the heart can’t pump blood around the body. Like all organs, the heart needs a blood supply to function optimally. It’s a strong muscle, and muscles need a flow of blood to receive oxygen.
Without a blood supply, and without oxygen, this muscle can’t work as intended. That’s when gerbil heart attacks are most likely to happen.
Heart failure is a separate issue. That’s when the heart can’t pump blood around the body. Heart failure can occur after a heart attack, or as a result of damage incurred over a long period of time.
Why Do Heart Attacks Happen?
The underlying cause of heart attacks is a lack of blood flow to the heart. If this goes on for long enough, the muscle tissue begins to die. It may then spasm in unexpected ways.
This issue, in turn, can be caused by many factors. The most common is atherosclerosis. This is where plaque builds up in the heart’s arteries. Plaque is a combination of fat, cholesterol, and other substances found in the blood. It becomes hard and attaches to the artery wall.
This itself reduces blood flow, and increases blood pressure. But sometimes, the plaque can damage the wall of the artery and cause a small wound. In response, the blood clots. This can fully clog the artery, stopping blood flow entirely, and immediately causing your gerbil to have a heart attack.
Another cause of heart attacks is a severe muscle spasm. If the spasm is severe enough, it can block off the artery. This achieves the same thing as plaque/blood clots, but in a different way.
Causes of Heart Attacks
Gerbils have a poor quality circulatory system compared to other animals. This means that they are more likely to experience heart attacks and other, similar health issues.
According to ILAR Journal, most gerbils have an incorrectly formed blood vessel structure in their brains. This makes it more likely that they will experience strokes because of ‘ischemia.’
Ischemia is where a blood vessel is blocked, either because of a clot, a spasm, or a physical cause. Ischemia-prone gerbils have thinner blood vessels that are more easily blocked. This doesn’t only apply to the brain; it can apply to any blood vessel. This makes circulatory issues likely.
Besides that, heart attacks are associated with other health issues. A problem with some aspect of the animal’s life causes gradual changes which add up. These changes eventually mean that the heart can’t do its job correctly.
Obesity in gerbils is the most well-known cause of heart attacks. Excessive consumption of food causes weight gain, which means the heart has to work harder to pump blood. Fatty foods, especially, contain fats that accumulate in the arteries and cause plaques, increasing blood pressure and the chance of failure.
Congenital, i.e. genetic conditions can also make a heart attack more likely. Some animals are born with a predisposition towards heart failure. So, some animals are more likely to become obese or experience ischemia than others.
Symptoms of Heart Attacks
Because the heart is so important, heart attacks cause many issues. Unfortunately, these issues cannot easily be spotted. There are several reasons why:
- Heart attacks last from seconds to minutes, so you may miss the symptoms when they occur
- Your gerbil can’t tell you how it feels, and most of the symptoms are invisible and internal
- Heart attack symptoms can be confused for the signs of other severe medical conditions
However, there are several fundamental changes that you will notice.
The death of tissue causes pain, no matter where it is. So, as your gerbil’s heart experiences a lack of blood, it causes your pet lots of pain. While some people think it’s not true, animals, including gerbils, feel pain in the same way that we do.
You can’t see this directly, and your gerbil can’t tell you that it’s hurting. This means it’s difficult to spot this symptom directly. But there are things you may notice that may be indicative of pain:
- Your gerbil nips and bites more than usual when you approach it or handle it
- Your gerbil hides more than usual, in its burrow
- Your gerbil’s movements are unsteady and/or wobbly
While chest pain is the most common heart attack symptom, it isn’t always present. Your gerbil may only experience other symptoms like shortness of breath, for example. So, chest pain is a sign of heart attack, but the absence of chest pain is not proof of the absence of heart issues.
Shortness of Breath
Shortness of breath occurs during a heart attack because the blood can’t pump blood correctly. Oxygen is taken from the lungs to every corner of the body by the circulatory system. Without the circulatory system to take it, the body is starved of oxygen.
It makes your gerbil breathe more than usual: deeper breaths, more frequently. This is one of the symptoms that you may spot, especially if you can compare your gerbil to another gerbil.
This symptom will be especially noticeable when your gerbil has to do anything. If it has to move somewhere quickly, it will struggle to breathe much more than usual.
Symptoms of Heart Failure
You stand a better chance of noticing the symptoms of heart failure. Heart failure are the difficulties that occur after a heart attack. These symptoms are apparent for much longer than those of a heart attack. They are also more visible from the outside. You may notice:
- Sudden weight gain
- Swollen abdomen, caused both by weight gain and bloating/water retention
- Labored breathing and wheezing (shortness of breath)
- Low energy levels
- Blue or gray gums and tongue
These symptoms of heart failure suggest that your pet may have had a heart attack in the past. The cause of the heart attack will still be present, so your pet could have another one soon.
Heart failure can go on for a long time before your pet succumbs to it and passes away. You should, then, notice it and treat it as best as you can.
Post Heart Attack Care
Quick treatment is essential after a heart attack, or during heart failure. You must begin by taking your gerbil to the vet. Even if you’re relatively sure that the issue is heart disease, a vet can tell you for sure whether it is or isn’t. Give your vet as much information as possible. This will relate to:
- Changes in your gerbil’s recent behavior, i.e. sudden shallow breathing, eating more or less, activity level, etc.
- When the onset of symptoms occurred
- Whether any of your other gerbils have or have experienced similar symptoms
However, do be aware that there is no treatment for heart attacks. There is no way to reverse the symptoms that your pet has undergone. A lack of oxygen to the heart tissue causes permanent scar tissue, so heart function is impaired for the rest of your gerbil’s life.
Your vet can only advise on ways to help your gerbil deal with the subsequent heart failure. These are the things that vets are likely to discuss with you.
Reduce Stress in Your Gerbil’s Environment
It’s common knowledge that heart attacks can be triggered by stress. Stress can cause inflammation in the arteries, making them more likely to block when a clot forms or plaque appears. However, sudden shocks don’t cause heart attacks.
Either way, your vet will likely advise you to make your gerbil’s environment less stressful for it to live in. This can involve:
- Moving your gerbil’s cage away from TVs or radios, and to a quieter part of the home
- Separating your gerbil from other gerbils if they always fight
- Not allowing other pets to come near your gerbil’s cage
- Not handling your gerbil too frequently
- Not moving your gerbil around too quickly when you do handle it
Doing these things will give your gerbil a more restful time as it recovers. This should encourage a lessening of symptoms, although not a complete reversal of them.
You could also consider covering your gerbil’s cage with a blanket. This will give your gerbil peace of mind, because it will feel like it’s somewhere secure that it doesn’t need to worry about predators. Cover half of the cage and it can still access light, which is crucial for its wellbeing too.
Ensure Your Gerbil Is Comfortable
Aside from the above, you should ensure that you are keeping your pet comfortable in all other ways. It’s easy to accidentally care for your pet incorrectly: e.g. giving too much or too little food. So, check the following:
- The temperature in and around your gerbil’s enclosure should be between 65 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. This is the normal room temperature, so it should not be a problem.
- Give your pet one tablespoon of gerbil food mix each day for optimal nutrition.
- Avoid feeding too many snacks. A food mix contains everything your gerbil needs.
Can You Treat Heart Failure in Gerbils?
Heart attacks cause more dead muscle tissue. Once heart muscle tissue dies, it cannot be repaired. It is ‘replaced’ with scar tissue. This scar tissue cannot contribute to the activity of the heart, i.e. pumping blood. This cannot be reversed. The greater the damage, the worse the heart failure.
The extent of this damage is something that cannot be determined without modern medical techniques. Unfortunately, these are reserved for use on people. Your vet will tell you what he thinks based on his experience and their knowledge of the symptoms.
What is clear is that full recovery is not possible. Your gerbil will never recover to full fitness.
That being said, severe heart failure does not necessarily follow a heart attack. Your gerbil may live a full-and-happy life, provided that whatever caused the heart attack (e.g. diet) is rectified. The level of heart failure is related to the length of time that the heart attack lasted.
Putting Your Gerbil to Sleep (Euthanasia)
Putting a pet to sleep is never easy, because you have to make the choice. However, it can be the better choice to make in certain circumstances. If the vet is confident that your gerbil will be extremely unwell and unhappy, and that there’s no chance of recovery, it’s kinder to do so.
The process isn’t a stressful one for your pet. According to the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, it involves a simple injection, which puts your pet into a deep sleep that it won’t wake up from. If you ask, your vet can explain this process to you, and why it may be the right option.
This is especially the case if your gerbil is already old. An old gerbil stands little chance of recovering and living a happy, pain-free life.
Prognosis After Heart Attacks
It depends on how much damage has been done to the heart. This, in turn, depends on how long the lack of blood to the heart muscle carried on for and how much muscle tissue has died.
Sudden death is possible during or soon after a heart attack. If the blockage in the artery cannot be cleared, more heart tissue will die until it cannot pump anywhere near enough blood.
The heart attack may have been mild. It may have caused only very slight damage to heart tissue before the blockage was cleared. If that’s the case, your gerbil can go on to live a happy life.