Heartworm disease is a mosquito-borne illness that typically affects cats, dogs, and ferrets. This serious condition, if left untreated, can result in organ failure and death if left untreated. Today, our Seattle vets explain why prevention is key.
What is heartworm disease?
Heartworm disease is spread through mosquito bites and is primarily caused by a parasitic worm called Dirofilaria immitis.
Companion animals like dogs, cats, and ferrets may become hosts for heartworms, meaning the parasitic worms live, mate, and produce offspring in the animal's body. The illness is called heartworm disease because the worms live in the heart, lungs, and blood vessels of an infected pet.
What are the symptoms of heartworm disease?
Symptoms of heartworm disease typically don't appear until the disease is advanced. The most common symptoms of heartworm disease include swollen abdomen, coughing, fatigue, weight loss, and difficulty breathing.
How does my vet check my pet for heartworms?
Your vet can complete blood tests to detect heartworm proteins (antigens), which are released into the animal's bloodstream. Heartworm proteins can't be detected until about five months (at the earliest) after an animal is bitten by an infected mosquito.
What if my pet is diagnosed with heartworm disease?
Cats and dogs suffering from heartworms require different treatments. Heartworm treatment can be lengthy, uncomfortable, and potentially dangerous for your pet (and expensive for you!) This is why we think of prevention as the absolute best treatment for heartworm disease.
If your pet is diagnosed with heartworms, your vet will consult with you about potential treatment options. For dogs, an FDA-approved medication (melarsomine dihydrochloride), which contains arsenic, will be given via a series of injections into your dog's back muscles.
While effective for dogs if administered properly, this treatment option is toxic to cats. Your vet will discuss alternative therapies with you.
Heartworms can live in dogs for 5-7 years, and in cats, the parasites typically only live for 2-3 years; this makes prevention imperative to their health and longevity.
How can I prevent my pet from getting heartworm disease?
It's important to keep your pet on preventive medication to prevent heartworm disease. Even if they are already on preventive heartworm medication, we recommend that dogs be tested for heartworms annually.
Heartworm prevention is a much safer, easier, and more affordable way to address this condition, rather than treating the progressed disease. A number of heartworm preventive medications can also help protect against other parasites like hookworms, whipworms, and roundworms.