Checking for HCM (Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy)
BY Astrid & Leo Straver, Tricks and Tails Maine Coons

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The most common heart disease in cats is called Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy or HCM. When a cat has HCM, the heart muscle enlarges and thickens which increases the amount of oxygen needed for the heart muscle and decreases the efficiency of the heart as a pump. This leads to increasing heart problems and even death.

HCM seems to be more common in young and middle aged male cats. In man HCM can be inherited as an autosomal dominant condition and it is suspected that it may be inherited in in a similar method in cats. HCM occurs in all breeds of cats.

Because there is a possibility that HCM may be inherited in some cases, breeders of high risk breeds will often have a cat's heart checked for problems prior to using the cat in a breeding program.

The best way to check for HCM is by having an Ultrasound performed on your cat. Ultrasound (echocardiogram) shows the thickness of the heart muscle wall, any abnormalities in the heartbeat itself, and gives an idea of the efficiency of the heartbeat and how well the heart is moving blood. It will also allow the veterinarian to look at the heart valves, and to check for thickening or the presence of clots. Ultrasound should only be performed by a specially trained veterinarian using the best ultrasound equipment available.

Performing an ultrasound on a queen pregnant beyond a few weeks into her gestation is not recommended as the increased blood flow associated with developing fetuses may alter the test results. Similarly, a nursing queen's additional mammary tissue might interfere with the ultrasound. Consult with the individual ultrasonographer if in doubt. 

Ultrasound is used routinely for checking other organs besides the heart including scanning the kidneys for Polycystic kidney Disease (PKD).

The "patient" in the photos below is a Maine Coon named CH Tricks and Tails Felicitas, owned by Mieke Pex. The photos are by Astrid & Leo Straver of Tricks and Tails Maine Coons in Holland who have their breeding cats tested for HCM and PKD by Dr. Ingrid Putcuyps in Belgium.

Dr. Ingrid Putcuyps of Belgium listens
to the heart of a Maine Coon

The Examination

Before beginning the ultrasound, the veterinarian first listens to the cat's heart with a stethoscope.

The vet is checking for any abnormalities such as a heart murmur.

Once the general examination is completed, the veterinarian prepares the cat for the ultrasound.

The cat lays quietly while a patch of hair is
shaved from behind the front legs

Preparation - To Shave or Not To Shave

Some ultrasonographers request shaving, some do not. If your vet feels he/she gets a clearer ultrasound image with shaving, do what your vet is most comfortable with.

If you veterinarian prefers to have the hair removed from the area to be scanned, your cat will need to have a small patch of hair shaved from behind the front legs for checking the heart or from the belly when checking the kidneys for PKD.

If you are still showing your cat and shaving would be problem :-), explain the situation to the veterinarian before testing. The vet may choose to perform the ultrasound without shaving or you may prefer to wait to do the test until your cat is finished its show career.

With the cat stretched out, the head of the probe
is moved over the area of the heart

The Ultrasound

During the ultrasound procedure the cat is stretched on its side on the table. The owner usually helps hold the cat and is present during the screening.

Some vets wet the skin with alcohol: some vets prefer to use a gel on the probe. The probe is carefully moved over the area and images appear on the monitor of the ultrasound machine.

This is an example of the type of image available during an ultrasound showing the actual heart

The Results

The monitor of the ultrasound machine shows a picture of the heart along with various readings, distances and measurements. This information is used to determine the status of the cat's heart. Most ultrasound machines can print out a photos of the image or a video tape.

If a cat is scanned negative for HCM, it will receive a certificate stating that "The cat is clear of evidence of HCM at present".


As you can see, having an ultrasound is a painless procedure that provides valuable information to the veterinarian and the owner. While costs can vary greatly, breeders often organize a "Clinic" day where up to 100 cats from many different owners are scanned for HCM and/or PKD at discount prices.

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