What you need to know about Heartworm Disease

Heartworm disease

It’s summertime! When it comes to our pet’s health, we usually focus on the dangers of heat this time of the year…. Heat stroke, heat exhaustion, keeping your pet cool. This is very important. However, there is another “nuisance” we should also be alert to during the warm summer months. Mosquitos! Hot and humid summer days are an open invitation to those pesky little insects. Our dogs and cats are particularly vulnerable as the bite of just one mosquito infected with the heartworm larvae can cause your pet to suffer heartworm disease.

The American Heartworm society released their 2018 heartworm statistics stating that that there has been a 21% rise in canine heartworm incidents in three years. I find that hard to believe. Heartworm prevention has to be in chapter one of “Pet Ownership 101”, along with flea prevention and rabies vaccinations, right? Unless a dog is feral, there should be no reason for them to fall victim to heartworm disease in this day and age.

Cats can also get heartworm disease, although it is not quite as common. Cats are not very good “hosts” to the heartworms themselves. The worms do not thrive as well in a cat’s body and do not live as long or grow as large. While a dog can have hundreds of heartworms infect its body, a cat may only have a few. Nevertheless, it is a serious diagnosis and can be fatal for our feline friends.

The Bad News

Canine heartworm disease is an awful thing. The dogs suffer, and not just like a 24-hour bug, but for an extended period of time. There are 4 stages to heartworm disease. A dog will generally not show any symptoms in the first stage, but through-out stages 2 and 3, a dog will become very fatigued and will have a persistent cough. They will experience trouble breathing, have a lack of appetite, and show poor body condition. Permanent damage to the heart and lungs will have occurred by the time they reach the final stage. In stage 4, the worms will have blocked blood flow within the heart and surgery is the only hope of survival.

The worst part is the treatment for a dog with heartworms, which is very time-consuming, dangerous, and not to mention, expensive. Heartworm treatment is considered dangerous since a lethal substance, similar to arsnic, is used to exterminate the worms inside the dog’s blood vessels. Before treatment can begin, the doctor may insist upon a round of antibiotics to counteract the bacteria in the worms themselves, and steroids to reduce the inflammation. The treatment itself, which is a series of injections, takes about 60 days, sometimes longer. During treatment, and for several months following treatment, the dog must have little to no activity or exercise.

If a dog is successfully treated for heartworm disease, it can still have lasting, permanent damage to its heart, lungs, and arteries. The dog’s quality of life will suffer long after the worms are eradicated.

There is currently no FDA approved treatment for heartworm disease in cats.

The Good News

This is all very depressing, but there is good news. The good news is that we, as pet owners, have a variety of treatment options for heartworm prevention for dogs. Rex has a once-monthly tablet he takes to prevent heartworm. I put the date it is due on my calendar. Tasty chewable tablets are also available if your pet is not a pill taker. Topical medicines are very popular these days, placed on the back – or between the shoulder blades – each month. Lastly, a twice a year injection is available through your veterinary.

Many heartworm preventatives offer other benefits as well. Some also eliminate fleas, ticks, and/or other types of worms, such as roundworms, whipworms, and hookworms. How convenient is that?

Some people think that a dog must only be treated for heartworm during the summer months, when the mosquitos are present. That is not advisable. Most Vets recommend year-round usage of heartworm preventative. How do we know when the last mosquito dies out for the season, or what time of the year they actually come out of hiding, right? Even pets kept solely inside the home should be given preventative heartworm medication… how many times have you batted at a pesky mosquito that snuck into your house? Again, it only takes one bite.

Annual blood testing for heartworms is also recommended, even if you have been diligent about giving your pet a preventative. Why? One reason often given is because when the preventative is taken, it is only viable for one day. Since it is only able to destroy the larvae at certain stages of its life, it is possible that some were not killed. So if the larvae were not killed in that one dose, could it have progressed into adulthood – thus infecting your pet? Maybe… I’m not sure… We’ll have to ask our vet. All I know is that it’s just not worth the risk to my little furbaby.

Note: If you are bringing your pet to Holiday Barn Pet Resorts for a stay, don’t forget to bring their heartworm preventative! We are happy to give your pet their medicine at its designated time.

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