April is Heartworm Awareness month

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What is Heartworm Disease?

Heartworm disease is a serious and potentially fatal disease of dogs, cats and other mammals. It is caused by a worm, which can be up to a foot long, living in the heart, lungs and associated blood vessels of the affected pet. The worm can cause severe lung disease, heart failure, and damage to other organs of the body.

Dogs are the natural host for heartworms, which means the heartworms that live inside the dog mature into adults and produce offspring that can infect other animals. If left untreated, the number of adult worms can increase and cause lasting damage to the heart, lungs and arteries. Cats can also become infected, although the worms do not usually survive to the adult stage. In cats the immature heartworms can cause significant lung disease or sudden death.

Heartworm disease is transmitted by the mosquito, which collect microscopic baby worms called microfilaria from an infected animal. When the infected mosquito bites another animal, the larvae infect the new host and develop into adult heartworms. This process can take 5 to 6 months for the larvae to mature and produce offspring in the infected animal. Heartworms can live for over 8 years in dogs and 3 years in cats.

The signs of heartworm disease can be easy to miss in the early stages of the disease. As the disease progresses, a mild persistent cough, reluctance to exercise and fatigue are common. In later stages of the disease, heart disease, lung disease, or even sudden death can occur.

Since the signs of this disease can go unnoticed, yearly testing is required to detect early disease. Heartworm preventatives are key to keeping your pet safe from this disease. Even while on the prevention, it is possible for your pet to get heartworm disease. This can occur due to the medicine being given more than 30 days apart (for oral or topical medications), the dog not actually eating the pill, or if enough infected mosquitoes are present, the baby heartworms overwhelm the ability of the medication.

Treatment for heartworm disease can take months and is expensive. There is no treatment available for cats with heartworm disease. We can only manage the signs of disease. Treatment protocols for the dog will vary by the health status, but usually involve 2 to 3 injections and strict rest to limit further damage.

Please make sure to give your pet heartworm prevention. There are many forms available to fit your pet’s individual needs. There are oral and topical medications which can be given every 30 days for both dogs and cats. For dogs there is also an injectable medication that is given every 6 months. Prevention is the key to keeping your pet healthy and safe.