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Heartworms cause serious problems for dogs and cats, and heartworms are endemic in Texas. Heartworms are passed between animals through mosquito bites. Your pet can be exposed to mosquitoes even if he or she rarely or never ventures outside!
Many pet owners have dogs with early stages of heartworm disease and don’t know it, which is why it is important to test your dog for heartworms, even if he appears healthy. Heartworm disease can be prevented and sometimes cured in dogs but is fatal if left untreated. There is no treatment for cats, and the first sign in cats is often sudden death. Pet owners should have their dogs tested for heartworm disease annually whether or not they are already on preventative medication. It is difficult to test for heartworms in cats, which makes it even more important for them to stay on monthly heartworm prevention.
What is heartworm disease?
Heartworms are a parasitic worm transferred to mammals through mosquitos. Although several mammals can contract the parasitic worm, dogs, wolves, coyotes and foxes are ideal hosts for the disease as the worm can mature into adulthood and reproduce inside their bodies. Cats are also susceptible to fatal heartworm disease.
How does heartworm disease spread?
Mosquitos are the only known transferring hosts of heartworms. While a mosquito is feeding on the blood of an infected animal with advanced stages of the disease, it ingests baby worms, or microfilaria living in the infected animal’s blood stream. After about two weeks, these baby worms have reached a level of maturity where they are infectious. Once a mosquito bites a susceptible host; the larvae makes its way into the puncture wound and into the bloodstream. If your dog is on heartworm prevention medication, the larva typically dies quickly without causing harm. If your pet is not on heartworm preventative medication, the heartworm will migrate to the heart and lungs and begin to grow. Once the worms grow and reach adulthood, they can cause severe symptoms in your pet. They will also reproduce, restarting the cycle and allowing other pets to be exposed to heartworm disease.
What are heartworm symptoms?
Because heartworms can live up to 7 years, the symptoms are dependent on the stage of infection and the amount of worms an animal has. Dogs may not show symptoms at every stage. In fact, your dog may seem fine one day, then begin to show severe, advanced-stage signs the next. This is why it is so important to stay on heartworm prevention and receive heartworm tests annually.
• Stage 1 – No symptoms present, or perhaps an occasional cough.
• Stage 2 – Occasional cough and abnormal tiredness. Mild changes to the heart and lungs may or may not be visible on chest x-rays.
• Stage 3 – A cough, tiredness, and some trouble breathing. Signs of heart and or lung damage are usually seen on a chest x-ray at this stage.
• Stage 4 – Heartworms have caused severe damage to the animal’s heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys. In this stage, Caval syndrome is likely. Caval syndrome is when there is such a large amount of worms blocking blood flow to the heart that it creates a sudden life-threatening problem in need of quick surgical intervention. At this point, most dogs do not live long enough to receive the life-saving surgery.
Can you treat heartworm disease?
If your dog comes up positive for heartworm infection, your veterinarian can consult with you about the safest protocol to treat your dog. Heartworm treatment for dogs is possible, but treatment can be costly and hard on your pet’s body. Your dog will have to be treated for microfilaria (the baby heartworms that circulate in the bloodstream), and then for the adult heartworms. This will require multiple vet visits over a span of several months, possibly blood work and x-rays, multiple medications, and crate resting your dog for a total of 2 months while he or she is going through heartworm treatment. There is no drug approved to treat heartworm in cats. The best thing for you to do for your dog or cat is to prevent heartworms from ever developing.
Heartworm prevention is the best treatment
Dogs and cats should get on heartworm prevention medication starting as young as possible. We carry heartworm preventatives that can be used in very young ages and very small weights, so most puppies and kittens can receive heartworm preventives as early as their first check-up. Every US state has reported heartworm infections, so every dog and cat in the US is at risk of coming into contact with the disease, but pets in Texas are at a particularly high risk due to the high numbers of mosquitoes we have here. There are many types of preventive options, all of which must be prescribed by a veterinarian after a general physical examination and a heartworm test (in dogs). Heartworm prevention can be administered in a variety of ways:
1. Monthly heartworm prevention pills
2. Monthly topical solution
3. Bi-annual preventative injections
A side benefit to keeping your pet on heartworm prevention is that most of these medications also contain a general dewormer to prevent other kinds of intestinal parasites in your pet. Some medications even prevent fleas as well. Your veterinarian can guide you on the best option for your particular pet.
Next steps for a healthier pet:
If your pet is not currently on a heartworm prevention regimen or you are more than two weeks late on administering your monthly heartworm preventative, please call our office to discuss the best options for your pets.
If your dog has missed doses of heartworm prevention, or if you have a newly adopted dog with an unknown history, the veterinarian may recommend an additional heartworm test 6 months after the first negative result. This is because heartworm testing in the dog detects only an antigen chemical secreted by adult female heartworms. This means that if your dog is infected with juvenile heartworms, but no adult heartworms, a test may come up as a false negative. It takes about 4-6 months for juvenile heartworms to mature and begin secreting detectible antigen, which is the reason for the 6 month heartworm test. Once your dog has consistently been receiving heartworm prevention, your veterinarian may recommend returning to the standard annual testing schedule.