Heartworm disease is a serious issue that affects dogs and cats alike. It's caused by foot-long worms that settle into the heart, blood vessels and the lungs of an affected pet. These worms can cause heart failure and lung disease and ultimately lead to the loss of a pet if not caught and treated in time. Pets that survive heartworm disease often have a lower quality of life because of the damage to their organs. As April is Heartworm Awareness Month, here's a look at why heartworm prevention is so important for your pets.
How Pets Get Heartworm
Mosquitoes are the most common carrier of heartworm and the source of all heartworm infections. A female mosquito picks up larvae in the bloodstream of an infected animal, then transmits the larvae into the next animal it bites. Dogs are a perfect host for heartworms which is why they're most affected by the parasite, but cats can also become hosts.
Heartworm larvae take about 4-5 months to develop into adult worms that settle into the organs of the animal. Once the worms take hold, the adults can live and produce larvae for 5-7 years.
Signs of Heartworm in Dogs
It's almost impossible to notice signs of heartworm in dogs during the early stages of the infection. Your pet will act normal until the larvae have matured a few months after infection. Signs of infection include:
- Easily fatigued
- Lack of interest in play or exercise
- Decreased appetite
- Weight loss
As the infection advances, the dog may develop heart failure and have a swollen belly from excess fluid that the heart can't pump out. A dog that has a large quantity of heartworms in their organs can exhibit Caval Syndrome which is caused by the heartworms suddenly blocking blood flow.
Signs of Heartworm Disease in Cats
Cats are much less likely to be afflicted by heartworms, but it's still a possibility. When a cat gets infected by heartworm, their organs are damaged in much the same way as a dog. The condition, heartworm associated respiratory disease (HARD) can cause symptoms that include:
- Asthma-like attacks
- Loss of appetite
- Difficulty walking
- Fluid accumulation
Heartworm prevention is important for cats because they can't be treated after the worms have taken hold. Cats can live with heartworms, but they can also collapse or die when signs are first noticed.
Testing Pets for Heartworm
Dogs can be treated starting at 7 months of age and tested 6 months after their initial visit. Tests should be done every 12 months after the first two visits. Adult dogs who were never tested or treated for heartworm need to be tested prior to treatment. Afterwards, the dogs need to be tested six months after, then every 12 months.
Cats require a blood draw to look for antigens and antibodies in response to a heartworm infection. Because cats have no approved treatment for infection, they should be put on a preventative dose as soon as possible.
Pet owners want to give their pets quality of life. Engaging in heartworm prevention is one of the best ways to help pets stay healthy. Talk to your veterinarian about heartworm prevention and treatment for your pets.