Heartworms are foot-long worms that live in the heart, lungs, and associated blood vessels of affected pets, causing severe lung disease, heart failure and damage to other organs in the body.
How is heartworm disease transmitted from one pet to another?
- When a mosquito bites and takes a blood meal from an infected animal, it picks up these baby worms, which develop and mature into “infective stage” larvae over a period of 10 to 14 days.
- When an infected mosquito bites another dog, cat, or susceptible wild animal, the infective larvae are deposited onto the surface of the animal’s skin and enter the new host through the mosquito’s bite wound.
- Once inside a new host, it takes 6 months for the larvae to develop into adult heartworms. Heartworms can live for 5 to 7 years in dogs. Because of the longevity of these worms, each mosquito season can lead to an increasing number of worms in an infected pet.
The common signs of heartworm disease are mild persistent cough, exercise fatigue, decreased appetite, and/or weight loss. Another common sign of heartworm disease is sudden death.
As heartworm disease progresses, pets may develop heart failure and the appearance of a swollen belly due to excess fluid in the abdomen.
What you need to do:
- Confirm the diagnosis through your veterinarian – once a dog tests positive on an antigen test, the diagnosis should be confirmed with an additional/different test. The treatment regimen for heartworm is both expensive and complex. Your veterinarian will want to be sure that treatment is necessary.
- Restrict exercise – the more severe the symptoms, the less activity your dog should have.
- Stabilize your dog’s disease. In severe cases or, when a dog has another serious condition, the process can take several months.
- Administer treatment. Once your veterinarian has determined your dog is stable and ready for heartworm treatment, they will recommend a treatment protocol involving several steps.
- Follow CAPC (https://capcvet.org/) and AHS (https://www.heartwormsociety.org/) guidelines that recommend annual testing for heartworm disease.
- This area sees mosquitoes throughout the year due to constant temperature changes, sometimes within a 24-hour period.
- Heartworm prevention is safe, inexpensive, and easy to administer. However, if your dog becomes infected with heartworm disease, treatment can be costly and difficult and requiring multiple veterinary visits and months of exercise restriction.
- Preventatives need to be given on time – every time to be effective.
- Heartworm prevention medications are by prescription only—so beware of an internet site or store that will dispense medicine without a prescription.
- Cats and ferrets can also contract heartworm disease.