Pet immunization is a part of responsible pet ownership. In most cases, it is very effective in protecting our furry friends from diseases. However, there are some exceptions, including heartworm disease.
While heartworm is primarily a disease in dogs, cats can also be infected. In fact, heartworm infection in cats has been on the rise in recent years. And while the infection may not be as common in cats as in dogs, it can still be very dangerous.
So, what is heartworm, and how exactly does it pose a threat to your pets?
What Is Heartworm Disease?
Heartworm is a parasitic infection transmitted to dogs, cats, and ferrets by mosquitoes. The disease occurs when a mosquito bites an infected animal and then feeds on the blood of a healthy animal.
After the mosquito takes a blood meal, it injects microfilariae (heartworm larvae) into the animal’s bloodstream. These larvae mature for several months (6-7 months) and eventually grow into adult heartworms.
Adult heartworms can grow up to 12 inches long and live on the right side of the heart and nearby pulmonary arteries. The worms can cause serious health problems for animals, including heart failure and damage to other organs.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Heartworm Disease?
The signs and symptoms of heartworm disease can vary depending on the stage of the disease. In the early period, you may not notice signs or symptoms at all. As the disease progresses, animals may start to show the following:
- Difficulty breathing
- Weight loss
In the later stages of the disease, heart failure can occur, requiring emergency care. Animals with heart failure may collapse, have an irregular heartbeat, and fluid may build up in their abdomen. It’s always best to choose a vet within your community so ask for recommendations from people around you. You may also look online by searching for an “emergency vet near me” to find the best clinic for your pet in your area.
How Is Heartworm Disease Diagnosed?
Heartworm disease is typically diagnosed through a combination of a physical examination, history, and laboratory testing.
During the physical examination, your veterinarian will look for signs of heartworm infection, such as a cough or difficulty breathing. They will also listen to your animal’s heart and lungs with a stethoscope. In addition, they will ask about your animal’s history, including any recent travel, mosquito exposure, and whether they’ve been on heartworm prevention medication.
Laboratory testing is usually needed to confirm the diagnosis. The most common tests used are x-rays and blood tests.
How Is Heartworm Disease Treated?
If your pet is diagnosed with heartworm, treatment is essential to their health and well-being. The goal of treatment is to kill the adult worms and larvae while also managing any symptoms.
Treatment options include:
1. Heartworm Preventive Medication
This medication kills heartworm larvae before they can mature into adults. It is given monthly and is available by prescription from your vet.
Some cases may require surgery to remove adult worms from the heart or lungs. But bear in mind that surgery may be risky for some animals, so your vet will assess whether it is a good option for your pet.
Antibiotics may be given before and after heartworm treatment to help prevent complications.
4. Pain Relief Medication
Pain relief medication may be given to ease any discomfort caused by the heartworm infection.
During treatment, some animals may need to be hospitalized to receive close monitoring and support.
6. Adulticide Therapy
This treatment kills adult heartworms and is typically given as injections for several weeks.
These drugs are used to help reduce inflammation caused by heartworms. They may be given orally or injected.
Recovery from Heartworm Disease
The good news is that many animals with heartworm disease recover with treatment and live happy, healthy lives. The recovery process can take several weeks to months, and you must follow your vet’s instructions. Here are additional tips to help them through this process:
- Provide plenty of rest: Animals with heartworm disease need plenty of rest to allow their body to heal. This means keeping them indoors and limiting their activity.
- Offer a nutritious diet: A healthy diet will help your pet’s body recover from the infection. Ask your veterinarian about the best type of food for your pet.
- Give medications as prescribed: Be sure to give your pet any medications prescribed by the vet, such as heartworm preventative medication, antibiotics, or corticosteroids.
- Monitor for signs of improvement: As your pet feels better, they may have more energy and be more active. Watch for these signs and let your vet know if you see any changes.
How to Prevent Heartworm in Pets
Prevention is always better than cure, especially true for heartworm disease. Several heartworm preventative medications are available that are highly effective at protecting pets from this disease.
These medications are typically given every month, and some require a prescription from your vet. If you’re not sure which product is best for your pet, talk to your vet about the options.
In addition to using a preventive medication, there are also a few other things you can do to help prevent heartworm in your pet:
- Keep them up-to-date on vaccinations: Vaccinations help boost your pet’s immune system, making them less likely to contract heartworm disease.
- Have them tested regularly: Have your pet checked for heartworm disease at least once a year, especially if you are in an area where the disease is common.
- Reduce mosquito exposure: Mosquitoes are the main transmitters of heartworm larvae, so it’s important to reduce your pet’s exposure to them. Keep them indoors during peak mosquito hours, use mosquito nets and repellents, and keep your yard free of standing water where mosquitoes can breed.
- Talk to your vet about heartworm: The best way to prevent heartworm is to talk to your vet. They can help you choose the proper preventive medication for your pet and answer any disease-related questions.
Heartworm disease is a severe and potentially fatal disease that affects dogs, cats, and other animals. Note that early detection and treatment are key to recovery. Several preventive medications are available that are highly effective at protecting pets from this disease.
In addition to using preventive medication and comprehensive veterinary care, you can also take some measures to help prevent heartworm, including keeping them up-to-date on vaccinations, having them tested regularly, and reducing mosquito exposure.