Heartworm is a highly serious disease of dogs and cats that results in damage to vital organs, including the heart and lungs. In severe cases, it can cause irreparable damage or even death to your beloved pet. Part of our role as your local family veterinarian is to open the conversation about ways to help your furry family members live happy, healthy, pain-free lives for as long as possible. At Continental Animal Wellness Center, we believe in the importance of year-round heartworm prevention that can be easily incorporated into your pet’s health plan. So, here is everything you need to know about how to prevent heartworm in your pets!
What Causes Heartworm Disease in Your Animal?
Heartworm disease is caused by a parasitic worm called Dirofilaria immitis, which is spread through a mosquito bite. Mosquitos are known as an “intermediate host,” meaning that the worms live inside the mosquito for a short period of time as larvae but must be transferred to another host to become infective. When the infected mosquito bites your pet, it transfers the heartworm larvae into your pet’s bloodstream. Cats and dogs then act as a “definitive host,” which means the worms mature into adults, mate, and produce offspring while living inside your pet. It takes about 6 to 7 months for the larvae to mature into adult heartworms in dogs after the transfer from the mosquito. These parasites are called “heartworms” because once they mature into adults, they then live in the heart, lungs, and blood vessels of an infected pet, causing significant damage to those vital organs. The adult heartworm can life inside a dog for 5 to 7 years, while only 2 to 4 years in a cat. Adult look like cooked spaghetti, with adult males ranging from 4-6 inches in length and females 10-12 inches. The number of adult heartworms that can live inside your dog range from 1 to 250 worms and is known as the worm burden. Heartworms in cats is not as common but it does happen. Due to their smaller body size, heartworms in cats often have significantly smaller worm burdens, but this also means that a cat with only a few worms is considered to have a heavy infection.
How is Your Pet Tested for Heartworms?
Veterinarians can test for heartworms in dogs and cats through a blood test. One is called an antigen test because it tests for the presence of specific heartworm proteins which are released by adult female heartworms into your pet’s bloodstream. This test will detect antigens as early as 5 to 6 months after your pet is bitten by an infected mosquito. We can also perform an antibody test, which will be positive if your dog or cat has had a previous heartworm infestation or if they are infected with only male heartworms. Antibodies can be detected approximately 6 to 8 months after infection. The final blood test detects microfilaria in a pet’s bloodstream. Microfilaria are the initial stages of young heartworm parasites, with the earliest detection being 6 months after initial infection.
What are the Signs of Heartworm Disease in Your Pets?
The severity of this disease is related to how many heartworms are living inside of your pet, how long your pet has been infected, and how your pet is processing the infection. Early on, your dog or cat may not show any symptoms at all. The longer the infection persists untreated, the more severe the symptoms will become.
Here are the signs and symptoms for heartworms in dogs:
- Persistent cough
- Reluctance to exercise
- Fatigue after moderate activity
- Decreased appetite
- Weight loss
- Heart failure
- Fluid filled abdomen
- Caval Syndrome – sudden onset of labored breathing, pale gums, dark or bloody colored urine.
As the severity of the heartworm disease increases over time, heart and lung changes can be visibly seen on chest radiographs. When a dog has not been treated for heartworm and it progresses to caval syndrome, surgery becomes the only option to potentially save your pet’s life. With caval syndrome, the worm burden is so high that they block the flow of blood back into the heart so they must be surgically removed. By this point the damage to your dog’s internal organs are so severe, the surgical procedure becomes high risk to your pet.
Heartworm disease in cats are not as common as they do not thrive as well inside a cat’s body as they do in dogs. With cats, the onset of the signs of a heartworm infection can be subtle or dramatic. Here are the signs and symptoms for heartworms in cats:
- Asthma-like attacks
- Periodic vomiting
- Lack of appetite
- Weight loss
- Difficulty walking
- Fainting or seizures
- Fluid filled abdomen
- Sudden collapse or death
When Should Your Animal Be Tested for Heartworms?
As with humans, preventative medicine for your pets is always your best course of action in the prevention of many diseases, including heartworm disease. Heartworm prevention should begin with routine blood testing at your pet’s annual physical examination with your veterinarian. Catching any disease early has the best prognosis and is less likely to be a large expense for you as a pet owner. As a veterinary wellness clinic, we also recommend several FDA-approved topical and oral products for heartworm prevention for dogs and cats. All of these are to be administered to your pet monthly year-round for heartworm prevention and do require a prescription from your veterinarian.
You may be wondering what happens if your pet does test positive for heartworms. Heartworm treatment depends on many factors and it is best to consult with your veterinarian to determine the best course of you and your pet. Some of the treatment options include oral medications, a course of injections, blood tests, x-rays, hospitalization, and even surgery. Heartworm disease is highly serious so it is important to know upfront that heartworm treatment is expensive and can cause life threatening complications. As previously stated, the best medicine is heartworm prevention.
Get More Information on Heartworm Disease in Flagstaff, Arizona
If you live in Coconino County and are looking for a comprehensive pet wellness center, Continental Animal Wellness Center is your go-to veterinary clinic. We understand that bringing your pet to the clinic can be scary, especially when you know they are sick but do not know why. At CAWC, we are committed to providing the best care possible to your pet while also keeping you informed and involved in your pet’s health so you can make an educated decision with your veterinarian. From routine preventative care, to sick pet exams, to diagnostics and surgery, we are the local choice for comprehensive pet wellness in Flagstaff, AZ. Contact us today to schedule a heartworm prevention exam with one of our veterinarians.