Heartworm disease is spread through the bite of an infected mosquito and can affect pets such as dogs, cats, and ferrets. If left untreated, heartworm disease has the potential to cause organ failure or be fatal. Today, our Oklahoma City vets discuss the complications of heartworm disease in pets and how it can be prevented.
What is heartworm disease?
Heartworm disease is caused by a parasitic worm called Dirofilaria immitis which is most commonly spread through bites from mosquitos.
Pets including dogs, cats, and ferrets may become hosts for heartworms, meaning the parasitic worms live, mate, and produce offspring in the animal's body. The illness is called heartworm disease because the worms live in the heart, lungs, and blood vessels of an infected pet.
What are the symptoms of heartworm disease?
Symptoms of heartworm disease typically don't appear until the disease is advanced. The most common symptoms of heartworm disease include swollen abdomen, coughing, fatigue, weight loss, and difficulty breathing.
How does my vet check my pet for heartworms?
Your vet can complete blood tests to detect heartworm proteins (antigens), which are released into the animal's bloodstream. Heartworm proteins can't be detected until about five months (at the earliest) after an animal is bitten by an infected mosquito.
What if my pet is diagnosed with heartworm?
Heartworm treatment varies between cats and dogs. Heartworm treatment is often lengthy, uncomfortable, and potentially dangerous for your pet—and expensive for you. This makes prevention the easiest and most recommended option for protecting your pets.
If your pet is diagnosed with heartworm, your vet will discuss potential treatment options with you. For dogs, an FDA-approved medication (melarsomine dihydrochloride), which contains arsenic, will be given via a series of injections into your dog's back muscles. While this treatment is viable for dogs it is extremely toxic to cats and so your vet will recommend a different treatment option for your feline friend.
Once they have infected your pet heartworms live for an incredibly long time. In dogs, they are known to live up to 5-7 years while heartworms typically only live for 2-3 years in cats.
How can I prevent my pet from getting heartworm disease?
It's important to keep your pet on preventive medication to prevent heartworm disease. Even if they are already on preventive heartworm medication, we recommend that dogs be tested for heartworms annually.
Heartworm prevention is safer, easier, and much more affordable than treating the progressed disease. Several heartworm preventive medications can also help protect against other parasites such as hookworms, whipworms, and roundworms.