Happy Spring! We hope this post finds you and your loved ones (including those fur babies) in good health. We wanted to check in and remind everyone that April is Heartworm awareness month! As the weather starts warming up and that desire to spend all your weekend outside comes about, it’s wise to make sure that your pets are prepared with heartworm preventatives. With Spring comes warmer weather, as well as the less than ideal fleas, ticks and mosquitos. These pests can transmit unwanted diseases to your pet, including our topic of discussion, heartworms. 

How do pets get Heartworms? 

Heartworm is passed from host to host by the mosquito.  All it takes is one small bite from the insect and the parasite can enter a pet’s bloodstream.  Once inside the new host, the heartworm larvae take about 6 months to mature into adults and can live for 5-7 years in dogs and 2-3 years in cats. Dogs are a natural host for heartworms, meaning that heartworms can live and mature into adults, mate and produce offspring in a dog’s body. Long term, the heartworms cause damage to the heart, lungs, and arteries. Without treatment this disease can be fatal, as dogs can harbor hundreds of worms at a time. 

Cats are not a normal host for heartworms and most larvae do not mature into adult worms.  Cats usually only have one to three worms at a time, compared to dogs which can have hundreds.  Since most worms do not reach the adult stage in cats, heartworm disease is often undiagnosed and cats do not always show symptoms of an infestation.  However, even immature worms can cause damage known as Heartworm Associated Respiratory Disease (HARD).  This term is used to describe the coughing and the difficulty breathing that is caused by the presence of the worms.  Medication used to treat dogs cannot be used in cats and there is no approved medication specifically for treating felines.  That being said, prevention is the only way to protect cats from heartworm disease.

What are signs of heartworm disease in pets? 

For dogs in early stages, they show few to no symptoms at all.  As time goes on, signs may include a mild but persistent cough, lethargy, no energy for exercise,  fatigue after moderate activity, decreased appetite, a swollen belly due to excess fluid in the abdomen, and weight loss.  At the late stages of the disease, dogs with a large number of worms can develop blockages of blood flow in the heart; this is called caval syndrome and is characterized by pale gums, dark, bloody urine, and hard breathing.

Some cats do not exhibit symptoms of the disease, however, common signs to look for include coughing, asthma-like attacks, vomiting, lack of appetite, or weight loss.  Occasionally, cats may exhibit more severe symptoms including fainting or seizures, fluid in the abdomen, or difficulty walking. Unfortunately, the first sign of an infestation in some cases is sudden collapse or death.

How do we diagnose and treat heartworms? 

If your dog’s annual heartworm test comes back positive, the veterinarian will want to confirm the diagnosis with an antigen test. Once a diagnosis is confirmed, it may become necessary to provide additional treatments to stabilize your pet before undergoing heartworm treatment. The treatment is a lengthy and expensive process that can be a really traumatic treatment for your pet to go through. While your pet is being treated, their activity must be restricted. Approximately 6 months following the final treatment, your dog will need to be tested to ensure all the heartworms have been eliminated. 

Prevention is key!

Treating heartworms is expensive and traumatic.  Prevention is very affordable and convenient. We recommend heartworm testing every 12 months and prevention 12 months of the year (yes, even in winter). There are a number of products on the market but they are only available by prescription so it’s important to discuss with your veterinarian which product is right for your pet. The added benefit of many heartworm preventatives is they also prevent some intestinal parasites, which can be zoonotic (contagious to other species, including humans). It’s also recommended that you purchase your pet’s preventatives from your veterinarian. Your veterinarian carries genuine products that are backed by the manufacturer’s guarantee. Should your pet get heartworms, the manufacturer will pay for the cost of your pet’s treatment. Adverse reactions to these medications are rare, but if it does happen, the manufacturer’s guarantee will cover the cost of the product as well as any treatment your pet required as a result. Heartworm prevention is very effective, however, it is not infallible and a number of factors can contribute to failure. This is why the American Heartworm Society and your veterinarian will want to make sure your pet has a heartworm test every year.

Your pet is counting on you to keep them safe from heartworms. If it has been more than a year since your dog’s last heartworm test, you can set up an appointment with us online or by phone. You can request a refill of your dog’s heartworm prevention any time with a negative test within the year. Then enjoy the outdoors with your best furry friend!