It Only Takes One Bite

The bad news: Heartworm disease can be fatal to dogs and cats. The good news: You can easily protect your pet from heartworm disease.

Texas ranks among the top 10 states where heartworm disease is most prevalent. Unfortunately, this means our pets are at a higher risk than those that live in more northern states. Since heartworm can predispose your pet to life-threatening health issues, prevention is something that should be on the mind of every pet owner.

Understanding Heartworm Disease

Heartworm disease is transmitted through the bite of an infected mosquito. Parasitic worms grow in the arteries of the lungs and heart of dogs, cats, and other species of mammals. The heartworm larvae enter through the bite of a mosquito and move through the pet’s body. They can grow up to 12 inches long. The disease is not contagious from one pet to another. However, heartworm positive pets are a source for mosquitoes to transfer disease between pets.

Heartworms are thin, spaghetti-like organisms that invade the heart, lungs, and arteries. Although commonly viewed as a canine-specific disease, heartworm can infect cats and other animals. It just happens that domestic dogs have a commercially available test to diagnosis and confirm the disease. Cats are equally at risk but do not have the same simple testing options or treatments.

Symptoms of Heartworm Disease

Pets with heartworm disease do not always have symptoms until the later stages when damage to the heart and lungs have already begun. Symptoms of heartworm disease that owners may notice can include:

  • Coughing
  • Decreased interest in exercise/play
  • Lethargy
  • Labored breathing
  • Lack of appetite and weight loss

When left untreated, heartworms can compromise the circulatory and respiratory systems. This can eventually lead to cardiac arrest, liver failure, kidney failure, blood clots, and other emergencies.

Use Heartworm Prevention Medication Year-Round

The FDA has approved several heartworm prevention medications for dogs and cats. Preventative medications can vary from oral, injectable, or topical. The best medication for your pet will depend on the type of pet you have. All preventative medications destroy heartworm larvae, or the baby heartworms, not adults. Once heartworms become adults, treatment with special medication at the veterinary hospital is required and can occur over several months. Preventative medication only works on the larva or baby worms.

That’s one reason veterinarians often recommend that pets receive heartworm prevention medication all year long. Although there are a fewer number of mosquitoes in the winter, there is still a risk that an animal could contract heartworms if the owner stops giving medication during this season.

Heartworms have been reported in dogs in all 50 states. If the animal becomes infected and you later resume giving the heartworm prevention medication without testing, you may be putting your pet in danger. The preventive medication can kill so many microfilariae (the juvenile offspring of adult, female heartworms) at once that it could shock the animal’s system.

Testing for Heartworms is Important

Be sure to have your veterinarian test your dog before you start using a heartworm prevention medication. Dogs that have heartworms will not show symptoms right away, and your veterinarian can easily test your dog with a simple blood test. Even if you’ve kept your dog on a steady regimen of preventive medication, your veterinarian should test for heartworms on a yearly basis. No drug is 100% effective, and you want to make sure the drug is working. Some pets may not absorb the medication correctly or secretly not take their oral medication. Sometimes it is easy to forget to give the prevention medication for a month or longer, leaving pets at risk.

Heartworm Prevention for Indoor Pets and Cats

Even if your pet rarely or never goes outside, they should still take a heartworm prevention medication. Mosquitoes that transmit heartworms can easily access the indoor environment (and therefore your pet) through open doors and windows.

Heartworms don’t survive as well in cats as they do in dogs, but cats are still at risk for heartworm disease. However, diagnosing heartworms in cats is not as easy, and testing is not as simple, or accurate, as in dogs. Cats may only have one or two heart worms which are sometimes not detected as well on a test.

Unlike for heartworm disease in dogs, there is no FDA-approved treatment for killing adult heartworms in cats. Because of the additional complications associated with diagnosing and treating cats, prevention becomes the best weapon against heartworms in cats. It’s best to place both indoor and outdoor cats on a year-round, FDA-approved preventative heartworm treatment. Other ways to combat pests include:

  • Removing standing water from your yard, including bird baths and plastic pools to reduce the mosquito population
  • Avoiding active pest hours, which generally occur around dawn and dusk
  • Checking your pet’s skin daily for fleas and ticks
  • Cutting back tall grasses and weeds
  • Keeping trash bins in a garage to deter wildlife (which carry parasites)

Useful Tips About Heartworms and Your Pet

  • Talk to your veterinarian about when and how often to test your pet for heartworms.
  • Talk to your veterinarian about which type of heartworm prevention medication is best for your pet.
  • Heartworm prevention medications are by prescription only—so beware of an internet site or store that will dispense medicine without a prescription.
  • FDA monitors approved heartworm prevention medications for problems that may occur with use, such as unexpected side effects.

Don’t let heartworm disease break your heart! Although we live in a region where mosquitoes breed year round, there are ways to protect your pet’s health and keep them safe with ZippiVet.

Bring your pet in for heartworm testing and prevention today.

For more information on heartworm disease check out The American Heartworm Society’s website

Post by Paul Stone

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