Heartworm disease: It’s just as nasty as it sounds. And, while it can be one of the most painful, deadly, and costly parasitic infections, heartworm disease is also one of the easiest to prevent. Here’s what you need to know about heartworm disease.
What is heartworm disease?
Heartworm disease is an infection caused by a parasite, a type of roundworm commonly referred to as heartworm because it lives in the heart, lungs, and surrounding blood vessels of affected animals.
Heartworm disease is more common in dogs, but cats can also be infected. The disease has been diagnosed in all 50 U.S. states, and has become more prevalent in recent years.
How is heartworm disease spread?
Mosquitoes carry and spread heartworm larvae. When a carrier mosquito bites a dog, the larvae enter the dog’s bloodstream and begin traveling through his body until they reach the blood vessels of the heart and lungs. Because dogs are natural hosts for heartworms (unlike cats), the larvae stay in the heart and lungs until they mature into adult heartworms, up to 12 inches long and spaghetti-like, a process that takes about 6 months. The mature heartworms then release immature heartworms into the dog’s blood. When the infected dog is bitten by a mosquito again, those immature heartworms are passed on, perpetuating the cycle.
Because cats are not natural hosts for heartworms, they are not as susceptible to the disease as their canine counterparts, but they can still be infected when bitten by a carrier mosquito. Both indoor and outdoor cats are at risk of contracting heartworm disease.
While dogs can have 30 or more mature worms in their bodies, most heartworms won’t survive to the adult stage in cats. Infected cats will usually have zero to three adult worms inside their bodies, but they still suffer from the effects of the disease.
How is heartworm disease diagnosed?
A simple blood test will reveal if your dog is heartworm positive. We recommend an annual heartworm test for every dog because there are few, if any, early signs of the disease, and the earlier heartworm is diagnosed, the greater your dog’s chances of a full recovery.
Some possible signs of heartworm disease in dogs include:
· Exercise intolerance
· Poor body condition
Heartworm disease is difficult to diagnose in cats because signs of the infection can vary widely. Infected cats can experience heartworm-associated respiratory disease (HARD), and some cats with heartworm disease might exhibit:
· Coughing, wheezing, or difficulty breathing
· Vomiting or diarrhea
· Difficulty walking
· Decreased appetite and weight loss
· Sudden collapse or sudden death
To determine if your cat is heartworm positive, we may conduct blood tests, urinalysis, an X-ray, and/or an ultrasound.
How can heartworm disease be prevented?
Help protect your dog from contracting heartworm disease by administering a monthly preventive medication. Heartworm preventives should be given on the same day each month. If the preventive is missed, given late, or spit out/vomited, your dog could be at increased risk.
Just like dogs, cats—both indoor and outdoor—should receive a heartworm preventive medication on the same day each month.
How is heartworm disease treated?
While heartworm disease in dogs can be treated, the treatment is often difficult and costly. And, the longer the infection goes untreated, the more dangerous it becomes. Dogs who have survived heartworm disease can experience long-lasting health problems and diminished quality of life long after the disease has been treated and the heartworms are gone.
Depending on your dog’s condition, we may recommend:
· Antibiotics, heartworm preventives, and steroids before beginning the adult worm treatment
· A 60+ day series of drug injections that will kill the adult worms
· A tapering dose of steroids following the injections
· Retesting after treatment concludes and 6 months later
There is no feline-specific heartworm treatment, and the medication used to treat canine heartworm is not safe for cats. If your cat tests positive for heartworm disease, we will work to stabilize her and determine a long-term plan to manage her symptoms.
Want to know more about heartworm disease? Think your pet might be showing signs of heartworm infection? Call our office at 303-680-5050 for answers to your heartworm questions and to discuss appropriate preventive medications for your pet.