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All About Heartworm Disease

April is National Heartworm Awareness Month! Heartworm disease is a serious and potentially fatal disease found in dogs and cats and transmitted by mosquitoes. With Texas being a warm-weathered state, especially this past year, heartworms are a serious problem that pet owners should be aware of.

What are Heartworms and Heartworm Disease?

Heartworm disease is a serious disease that causes damage to a pets (mostly dogs, cats and ferrets) organs, specifically the heart. Left untreated, it can cause death. It is caused by a parasitic worm that is spread through the bite of an infected mosquito. When bit by the infected mosquito, the pet is the definitive host; this means that the heartworm can then mature and create offspring in the body of the pet.

Heartworms are different than the parasitic worms that are found in the stool of our companion animals. They can grow up to a foot long and are spaghetti-like. This allows for the worm to wrap around and grow in the heart, lungs, and blood vessels of pets.

Heartworm disease is found mainly in the Atlantic and Gulf coasts from the Gulf of Mexico to New Jersey and along the Mississippi River. Heartworm disease has been known to be diagnosed in all 50 states.

Heartworm Disease in Dogs and Cats

Heartworm disease is most commonly found in dogs. In fact, a dog is the natural host for heartworms. As mentioned previously, these parasitic worms can mature and create offspring that live in dogs. Left untreated, there can be up to 100 heartworms living in one dog at a time.

Heartworm disease in cats is quite a bit different than it is in dogs. A cat is an atypical host for heartworms, meaning that most of the parasitic worms do not live to the adult stages. Many cats affected by heartworm disease have no adult worms living in their bodies. While this may seem like a blessing, even immature heartworms can cause damage to your cat’s health. Also, cats are unable to undergo the same treatment that dogs can when they are diagnosed with heartworm disease; this is why prevention is so important!

Heartworm Testing, Treatment and Prevention

It is so important for your pets to be tested for heartworms on an annual basis! Because this disease is a progressive disease, the earlier it is detected, the easier the treatment options are. There are few signs of a pet having heartworm disease in the earlier stages, so being sure that your pet is up to date on testing is important.

Your veterinarian is able to do the test in a short period of time. All it takes is a small amount of blood. Typically the test takes about 10 minutes or less to run and you as a pet owner will know the results before you leave the clinic!

If your pet is diagnosed as heartworm positive, please know that there are treatment options! Your veterinarian may want to run a second heartworm test to double check the diagnosis; because treatment will be necessary, it is important to know what steps to take before starting a treatment plan. Exercise must be restricted upon a positive diagnosis. Active pets, dogs especially, will have a hard time with this, but kennel time is important to adhere to. The more active a pet is the higher the rate of damage the heartworms can cause to the heart and lungs. Medications may be prescribed before the treatment process begins. Sometimes a steroid and an antibiotic, such as Prednisone and Doxycycline, are prescribed before and/or after the treatment process. Then, the treatment process can begin by your veterinarian. There are different options for the rate of the worms to be killed so, talk to your vet about which would be safer for your pet! When treatment has been completed, your pet should be retested for heartworm disease.

The above process typically applies to dogs only. While other pets can get heartworm disease, the treatment process can either vary or may not be applicable at all. Unfortunately, if a cat is diagnosed heartworm positive, there are no possible treatment options.

The easiest way for a pet to avoid contracting heartworms is to have them on a reliable heartworm prevention year-round. Many heartworm preventatives also can protect your pets against fleas and other intestinal parasites. It cannot be stressed enough that your pet takes this medication on a monthly basis for the rest of their lives. Not giving them this prevention can result in a positive heartworm diagnosis and more money to spend on heartworm treatment. For those of us in Texas, our winters do not get cold enough to kill off the mosquito population, so prevention is necessary for our furry friends.

With the warmer temperatures quickly approaching, it is a great time to get your pet’s annual exam taken care of by one of our veterinarians! Our exam package for dogs includes a heartworm test, so you can get your pet up to date on his or her heartworm prevention! If you have any other questions about heartworm disease or would like to learn more, please feel free to visit the American Heartworm Society or give us a call at 214-328-9935!