Just the word “heartworms” is enough to strike fear in most dog lovers. This serious and sometimes fatal disease affects dogs of any age or breed and has been found in all 50 states. While heartworm infection causes extensive and severe heart and lung damage in dogs, treatment success rates are high. But why let your dog suffer at all? With effective preventative medicine, you can easily protect your four-legged friend from heartworm disease.
What are heartworms?
Heartworms, also known as Dirofilaria immitis, are parasites that live in the heart chambers and pulmonary arteries in dogs. They grow between 6 to 14 inches in length and cause heart and vital organ damage by blocking the flow of blood. An average heartworm infection consists of a dozen worms while severe infections can consist of 50 to 100 worms. (Ewwwwwww!)
How do dogs get them?
Heartworm infection is transmitted solely by mosquitoes. A female mosquito bites an infected animal and ingests tiny larvae found in the animal’s blood. Eight days to one month later, the mosquito then bites a healthy dog and deposits the larvae, which grow and travel throughout the dog’s body. It’s estimated that 27 million dogs in the U.S. are not protected from heartworm infection. Mosquitoes can also pass on heartworms from coyotes, foxes, wolves, domestic and wild cats and ferrets. It can take anywhere from several months to a year after the mosquito bite for symptoms to show up in your dog.
What are the symptoms of heartworm infection in dogs?
Coughing is the most frequent indicator of heartworms. Your dog may also experience shortness of breath and fatigue while exercising. Advanced symptoms include weight loss, breathing difficulty, fever and fluid in the abdomen. Keep in mind that each dog reacts differently to heartworms and symptoms will vary based on the duration and severity of the infection.
How do you prevent heartworms?
Luckily, preventative medicine, such as chewable pills which are administered monthly, are 100 percent effective against heartworms. Other options include topical treatments or injections given by your vet twice a year. Consult your vet for the best preventative for your dog and make sure to give your dog the medicine as directed. Some owners forget and leave their dogs unprotected against this deadly disease.
How are heartworms treated?
Your vet can determine if your dog has heartworms with a simple blood test. If your dog tests positive, there’s a 95 percent chance of recovery, although the treatment will be difficult for your dog. It consists of killing the worms, which then decompose, breakup and lodge in the capillaries of the lungs and obstruct blood flow. Treatment for severe cases can take as long as five months.
Many dog and cat lovers have misinformation about heartworm infections. Here are some common misconceptions and the truth about this disease.
1. Cats can’t get heartworms. Felines can become infected with heartworms but the parasites affect them differently than dogs. While heartworms in dogs live in the heart and cause cardiovascular disease, heartworms in cats develop in the lungs causing respiratory disease. Heartworm infection in cats is difficult to diagnose because it’s often mistaken for asthma or bronchitis.
2. My pets can’t get heartworms because they stay indoors. All cats and dogs require heartworm protection, even those considered indoor pets. All it takes is one mosquito bite for your dog or cat to become infected. If you allow your pets to sit or lie in front of open doors and windows or let them go out on a deck or patio, they’re at risk. Also, even if your dog or cat truly never goes out, mosquitoes can sneak inside your home.
3. Pets don’t need heartworm medication during the winter. Climate changes and urbanization have affected the environment and raised temperatures which increases the chances for heartworm infection all year. As a result, the American Heartworm Society and the Companion Animal Parasite Council recommend year-round, broad-spectrum heartworm prevention in all areas of the country.
4. My pet and I live in a region that doesn’t have heartworms. While areas with a higher mosquito population, such as Texas, Florida and Louisiana, will have higher incidences of heartworms, all 50 states have reported infections. As new cases continue to grow year after year, vets now recommend heartworm preventative treatment for pets across the United States.
5. Preventing heartworm infection is too expensive. Depending on the size of your dog, heartworm preventatives can cost as little as 10 cents a day. You can buy a lifetime of heartworm preventatives for less than the cost of treating your dog for heartworm infection. You can also spare your beloved companion the difficult treatment needed to eradicate these parasites.