If you live in an area that has mosquitos (like Wilmington, NC!), your pet may be at risk for developing heartworm (sometimes misspelled heart worm). Understanding what heartworm is and how to prevent it is key in helping your dog or cat avoid this potentially fatal disease.
What is Heartworm?
In simple terms, heartworm is caused when a mosquito carrying the parasite Dirofilaria immitis bites your pet. If the parasites get into your pet, they can develop into foot long worms that mate and create offspring. Heartworms can live in the heart, lung and blood vessels for a long time—often years, before being detected.
Which Pets Can Get Heartworm?
Heartworm can live for five to seven years in dogs and up to two to three years in cats. Heartworm also affects ferrets and even wildlife including wolves, coyotes and foxes. Humans can also get heartworm.
Symptoms and Effects
Dogs are more likely to be hosts of heartworms than cats, and are more likely to have a greater number of worms—sometimes as many as several hundred. Each bite from an affected mosquito increases the chance of developing more worms.
As the worms increase, they can clog your pet’s heart, lungs and circulatory system. A decrease in your dog’s level of energy, a persistent cough, decreased appetite or weight loss may signal the presence of heartworms. In cats, prolonged coughing, asthma symptoms, vomiting, lack of appetite and weight loss can be signs of the disease. If untreated, heartworm disease can cause sudden heart failure.
A blood test can often detect the presence of heartworms. Other tests such as a complete blood count (CBC), X-rays or electrocardiograms and echocardiograms can determine the presence of heartworms and the health of the heart. If your pet is diagnosed with heartworms, your veterinarian will advise you on the best course of treatment, based on your pet’s condition. Medicines that kill adult heartworms can be given to your pet, followed by antibiotics and additional medicines to kill any remaining baby worms. Pets that are on this medicine are under complete rest during recovery to avoid complications.
Pets that have heartworms may also have long-term damage to their heart, lungs, liver, kidney and blood vessels. In the most severe cases, your vet may determine the feasibility of administering medicine to kill heartworms versus preserving your pet’s quality of life.
Fortunately, heartworm can be avoided through preventative medicine. Your veterinarian can provide a protocol for your pet, based on age and health.
Even if it’s not mosquito season, heartworms can be silently affecting your pet’s health. If you have questions about protecting your pet from this avoidable, serious disease, talk with the veterinarians at Dogwood Vets. Give us a call at 919.942.6330 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.