Heartworms: We hear about them a lot and know they’re a danger to our pets’ lives. But what are they, really? We’ve put together a short guide to heartworms to help you understand the danger and how you can prevent heartworms from affecting your four-legged friends.
What are they?
Heartworms are transmitted to dogs and cats by mosquitoes. Wolves, foxes, coyotes, sea lions, and even humans can also carry heartworms. When a mosquito bites a mammal infected with heartworms, the mosquito picks up heartworm larvae. The next time the mosquito bites a mammal, it deposits the larvae into that mammal’s blood stream. The larvae mature and travel through the animal’s blood stream. They can grow up to 12 inches in length, and their ultimate destination is the animal’s heart and pulmonary arteries. Heartworms create permanent damage by moving through an infected animal’s veins.
In dogs, heartworm symptoms generally don’t show up for about six months. Those symptoms include coughing, sluggishness and fatigue, a decrease in appetite, and weight loss. The symptoms are more visible in dogs that are active or have pre-existing health problems. The longer the heartworms go untreated, the more likely they are to cause cardiovascular collapse or caval syndrome by blocking the dog’s blood flow. A dog is likely suffering from caval syndrome if he or she has difficulty breathing, her gums are pale, and her urine is dark and blood- or mud-colored. At this stage, the only way to save the dog’s life is by having surgery to remove the heartworms.
In cats, heartworm symptoms are less visible and heartworms are often only detected when the cat collapses or dies suddenly. Cats may have heartworm symptoms if they are coughing, have breathing problems that resemble asthma attacks, are vomiting, lack appetite, and have been losing weight. If the heartworms go untreated, the cat can have trouble walking and might faint, have seizures, or retain fluid in his abdomen.Without treatment, heartworm-infected dogs may live 5 to 7 years, and cats may live 2 to 3 years.
How common are they?
While heartworms are most common in the southeast, along the Mississippi River, and on the East Coast, it is present in all 50 states, as well as in several other continents. According to the American Heartworm Society, heartworm larvae are present in the blood of 80 to 90 percent of American dogs, and 20 percent of American cats. Of those animals that are exposed to the larvae, 100 percent of dogs become infected with heartworm and 60 to 90 percent of cats become infected.
How do you prevent them?
Fortunately, it is easy to prevent heartworm infection. A veterinarian can prescribe an inexpensive pill that can be given to dogs and cats on a monthly basis. You can also cut down on the ability for mosquitoes to transmit the disease to your pets by making your home an unhospitable environment for mosquitoes:
- Get rid of stagnant or long-standing water
- Keep your lawn and bushes trimmed
- Use LED lights around doorways, windows, and porches
- Ensure that your home’s window screens are secure and well-maintained
- Install weather stripping to seal off gaps in and under doors and windows
- Use citronella and essential oils to repel mosquitoes.
What treatments are available?
If your pet tests positive for heartworm disease, your veterinarian can help you come up with the best course of treatment. Unfortunately there is no drug treatment for cats, but there are non-drug treatments. The most common method of treatment for dogs is an injection. However the injection series usually requires the dog to stay at an animal hospital for a short time for observation. Pets also have to avoid exercise for several weeks and should be put on a preventive medication to stave off future infections.
Why is it important to prevent heartworms?
Taking preventive measures against infected heartworm larvae can save your pet from terrible discomfort, or worst, death. Prevention can also save you the stress, agony, and financial inconvenience of helping your dog or cat fight against an infestation of heartworms in his or her veins, heart, and lungs.
Visit Northwest Pet Clinic today to talk to a veterinarian about making sure your animal friend stays happy and healthy!