As a pet owner, you’ve probably heard of heartworm, though you may not be sure what exactly it is or how it can affect your dog or cat. The guide below is meant to give you a general overview of what heartworm is, what it can do to your beloved companion, how you can prevent it, and how you can treat it.
What’s Heartworm and How Do Animals Become Infected?
Heartworm is transferred from one animal to another via mosquito bites. An animal that’s infected will be the host to microfilaria, which are sucked up with the blood that a mosquito consumes when it bites the animal. The microfilaria will begin to develop inside the mosquito. Once these reach the third stage of their development, they move into the mosquito’s salivary glands. When the bug bites your pet, the larvae are transferred into his body, where they continue to develop over the course of six to seven months. Once these worms become sexually mature, they can be detected by a heartworm test at your vet’s office. The worst part is that these worms will eventually migrate to your pet’s heart and lungs and stay there for years as they continue to grow and reproduce, unless they’re eliminated in time.
What are the Symptoms?
Clinical symptoms of heartworm disease may not be present in the early stages, which is why veterinarians highly recommend taking preventative measures to ensure your pet doesn’t become infected in the first place. Symptoms may appear months or even years after infection with the worms, which will continue to accumulate in the body.
Dogs who are heavily infected may show symptoms that include a persistent mild cough, fatigue after moderate exercise, weight loss, reduced appetite, and lethargy or reluctance to exercise.
Cats are more difficult to diagnose because many of the symptoms mirror those of other conditions. Clinical signs include gagging, vomiting, rapid breathing, difficulty breathing, weight loss, and lethargy. Felines may also show symptoms similar to those of allergic bronchitis or asthma in the early stages of infection.
What are the Treatment Options?
Treatment for heartworm disease can be difficult, but the earlier you diagnose an infection and get it treated, the better the odds of your pet overcoming it. According to PetMD, your veterinarian can test your dog or cat for heartworm disease and treat it right away, but preventing the disease is really the best course of action.
Treatment is expensive and complicated in dogs and often requires hospitalization. It’s usually most successful in animals whose disease hasn’t yet become advanced. There’s no treatment for felines infected with heartworm, so prevention is key. Also, even though cats tend to be more resistant to infection and may even be able to get rid of it on their own, the dead worms can have a dangerous effect as the body attempts to get rid of them. Shock, which is life-threatening, may occur, so vets often employ supportive therapies to minimize the risk of this happening and to control respiratory symptoms and vomiting.
How Can Heartworm Be Prevented?
Because heartworm disease is spread via mosquitoes, taking steps to ensure your pet isn’t exposed to these bugs is one way to prevent infection. However, you can also give your dog heartworm preventative medicine that will kill larvae. Like flea and tick medication, it’s given regularly, but you should also have your dog tested consistently for infection. The same types of preventative medications are available for cats, though you may opt to have your cat regularly checked for infection rather than administering the medicine unless your vet highly recommends it. Keeping your cat indoors will also reduce the risk of infection. Always discuss your options with your veterinarian, who knows your pet best and the prevalence of heartworm infection in your area.