What are heartworms?
Heartworm disease is a severe and progressive disease caused by worms growing and living in the heart and lungs of an affected pet, leading to severe and sometimes fatal heart damage, lung disease, and potential heart failure. Heartworms can affect cats, dogs, and ferrets as well as wild mammal species (potentially living in your area) such as coyotes, foxes, and wolves that are considered common carriers of the disease. Heartworms are transferred by infected mosquitoes with the bite of just one mosquito posing the risk of infection, which is why prevention is so important.
With summer right around the corner, it’s more important than ever to understand how heartworm disease can affect your beloved pet. Contrary to popular belief, heartworm disease has been diagnosed in all fifty states and it is for this reason that the American Heartworm Society recommends pet owners administer heartworm preventative medicine to their pet year-round, then to get their pet tested every year for heartworms to ensure the treatment is working correctly. While preventative medicine is over 95% effective in preventing heartworm disease, even missing one dose can leave your pet at risk.
While some pet owners comment that preventative care is an unnecessary expense of pet ownership, caring for a pet with heartworm disease is much more pricey.
What happens when a dog has heartworms?
Dogs are ‘natural hosts’ for heartworms, meaning that a dog’s body is an optimal environment for heartworms to live, mature, and reproduce. Or, in other words, thrive while causing irreparable damage to your dog’s cardiovascular health. The signs that your dog may be suffering from heartworm disease include a decrease in appetite, trouble breathing or coughing, unexplained weight loss, fatigue after moderate activity, and in more severe cases of heartworm disease, excess fluid causing a swollen belly.
What treatment options are available?
While scary, in most cases, infected dogs can be completely healed of heartworm disease with treatment including restricting exercise to stabilize your pet’s condition then either an injection or topical treatment plan to kill the adult heartworms and larva.
Can cats get heartworms?
While not as severe as a dog having heartworms, indoor and outdoor cats are susceptible to contracting heartworms as well. Cats are classified as ‘resistant hosts,’ meaning that the worms don’t thrive as well in a cat’s body as they do in a dog’s — heartworms don’t survive to adulthood. The cause for this discrepancy is unknown, but it is important to note that while the worm(s) may not live as long or grow as big (averaging a lifespan of two to four years in a cat versus five to seven years in a dog), the effects of heartworms on your cat’s health are still dangerous.
What are the symptoms of heartworms in cats?
The symptoms of heartworm disease in cats can vary between pets and are similar to the signs of other respiratory diseases. These symptoms include your cat having trouble breathing, coughing, fatigue, vomiting, or suffering from unexplained weight loss or a decrease in appetite. Currently, there is no FDA-approved heartworm disease treatment for cats, but symptoms can be managed with surgical removal of the heartworms being the most intensive treatment option.
For both cats and dogs, the earlier heartworm disease is diagnosed, the faster treatment can begin, and the more likely your pet is to recover. Since early stage heartworm disease in cats and dogs often shows no apparent signs or symptoms, you won’t know your pet even has the disease and needs treatment until being tested. The best treatment of heartworm disease is prevention either as a topical medicine applied to your pet’s skin, oral tablets, or injectable treatment administered by your veterinarian at Community Veterinary Clinic.