Understanding Heartworm in Cats and Dogs: Quick Facts About This Disease

All pet owners understand that pet parasite prevention is important to keep their animals healthy and free of parasites.

But did you know that heartworm is especially a serious threat to both dogs and cats? In this quick guide, we’ll review some facts about this disease so that you can be informed and take steps to protect your furry family members.

What Is Heartworm?

Heartworm is caused by a parasitic worm called Dirofilaria immitis. These worms are transmitted through the bite of an infected mosquito, and they mature and live in the heart and lungs of their host animal. Heartworms can grow up to 12 inches long and live for 5-7 years in dogs and 2-3 years in cats. Heartworm can be fatal if left untreated and needs urgent pet care.

People can get heartworm from an infected animal, but since humans are not a natural host, the parasite does not survive in our bodies for long.

Signs and Symptoms of Heartworm Disease in Pets

The signs and symptoms of heartworm illness depend on the stage of the infection. There may be no signs or symptoms in the early stages at all. As the number of worms increases, infected animals may start to show signs as follows:

  • Respiratory distress, including coughing and difficulty breathing
  • Lethargy
  • Poor appetite
  • Weight loss

In the later stages of the disease, heart failure can occur. Animals with heart failure may collapse, have an irregular heartbeat, and fluid may build up in their abdomen.

Diagnosis of Heartworm Disease in Pets

The best protection from heartworm is to have them tested annually and put on year-round prevention.

Your vet will conduct a physical test and ask about your pet’s history, including any potential exposure to mosquitoes. Also, a blood test may be necessary to look for evidence of the heartworm parasite. And in some cases, additional tests may be required to confirm the diagnosis, including:

  • Blood test: This test looks for heartworm antibodies produced by the animal’s immune system in response to the presence of heartworms.
  • X-ray: An x-ray can show if there is damage to the lungs or heart due to a heartworm infection.
  • Ultrasound: This imaging test can show worms in the heart or lungs.

Treatment of Heartworm Disease in Pets

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.

2. Surgery

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.

3. Antibiotics

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.

5. Hospitalization

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.

7. Corticosteroids

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 tested for heartworm at least once a year. Your vet may recommend testing every two years if they are on preventive medication.
  • Avoid mosquito-infested areas: Mosquitoes are the main vector for heartworm, so it’s important to avoid areas where they are prevalent. If you reside in an area with many mosquitoes, take steps to protect your pet from them, such as using mosquito nets and repellents.
  • 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.

Keep in Mind

Heartworm disease is a serious condition that can be fatal to pets if left untreated. However, it is preventable with the use of monthly preventive medications.

The key to protecting your pets from having this disease is to be aware of the symptoms, get them tested and vaccinated regularly, and use monthly preventive medication. If you think your pet may have heartworm, be sure to take them to an experienced vet facility, such as American Pet Clinic, for early diagnosis and treatment to make a full recovery.

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