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The pericardium is a sac that surrounds the heart. The area between the heart and the pericardium is called the pericardial cavity. Normally, there is a very small amount of fluid within the pericardial cavity which lubricates the heart while it is beating. Excessive fluid accumulation within the pericardial space is called pericardial effusion and can lead to a condition called pericardial tamponade (compression of the heart) and heart failure.

Pericardiocentesis is a procedure where a needle attached to a syringe is directed through the skin, between the ribs, and into the pericardial space to remove this excess fluid. A veterinary pathologist later analyzes the fluid for infection, cancer, or inflammation.

Removing the fluid immediately improves a patient’s heart function. Pericardial effusion can be diagnosed by patient examination findings, X-rays or cardiac ultrasound.

Causes of pericardial effusion include infection (heartworm disease), heart failure, and cancer. Many times, however, the cause is unknown, or “idiopathic”.

Pericardiocentesis is performed while the patient is under general anesthesia to minimize discomfort, and to eliminate any patient movement during the procedure. Ultrasound guidance is usually used to minimize complications including lacerating a lung and puncturing the heart itself.

This ultrasound video clip shows pericardial effusion in a dog. The beating heart can be seen in the center surrounded by a large amount of effusion (the black area around the heart.)

 Your pet may need a pericardiocentesis is your veterinarian has diagnosed your pet with pericardial effusion.