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Your Pets and Heartworm Disease

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, all dogs, cats and ferrets are susceptible to heartworm infection. Wild animals such as coyotes, raccoons and foxes can also be infected.

Heartworm is a serious and potentially fatal parasite that can be prevented. The American Heartworm Society recommends testing pets every 12 months for heartworm and giving pets a heartworm preventive 12 months a year. This includes dogs, cats, and ferrets.

Mosquitoes transmit heartworms from animal to animal. When a mosquito bites an infected animal, young heartworms enter into that mosquito’s system. The next time a mosquito feeds on another animal, the immature heartworms transfer to that animal.

How do you know if your pet has heartworm infection or disease?

Infected dogs may cough, become lethargic, have less appetite or exhibit difficulty breathing. A blood test will detect the presence of adult heartworm infection. Additional tests may be necessary to confirm the diagnosis, evaluate the severity of the disease and determine the best treatment plan.

Signs of heartworm disease in cats include coughing, respiratory distress and vomiting. Diagnosis is more difficult in cats than in dogs so a series of tests may be necessary.

Is heartworm disease treatable?

Heartworm is a progressive, life-threatening disease. Early detection and treatment mean better chances that the pet will recover with fewer complications.

There is substantial risk involved to treat a dog for heartworms. The goal is to kill the adult worms inside your dog as safely as possible. Dogs undergoing treatment require complete rest through hospitalization and for some time following the last treatment. Other medications may be necessary to help control the body’s reaction as the worms die and are broken down in the dog’s lungs.

There is currently no effective and safe medical treatment for heartworm infection or heartworm disease in cats. Cats diagnosed with heartworms may need medications to reduce the inflammatory response. Your veterinarian may also recommend surgery to remove the heartworms.

Surgical removal of heartworms for both dogs and cats is a high-risk procedure typically reserved for severe cases. However, in some cases, it is the only chance for the pet’s survival.

Heartworm infection is preventable. Several FDA-approved heartworm preventives are available. Your veterinarian can recommend the best method of prevention based on your pet’s risk factors and lifestyle. Even indoor pets are at risk.

Ferrets exhibit signs similar to those seen in dogs but they develop more rapidly. Just one worm can cause serious disease in a ferret. Your veterinarian can prescribe heartworm medication for use in ferrets.

Preventives do not kill adult heartworms and will not eliminate heartworm infection if adults are present in the pet’s body. Your veterinarian will discuss the importance and timing of heartworm testing during the annual physical. 

No medications afford 100 percent effectiveness. So annual testing, even in pets that take preventative, help insure that the appropriate amount of medication is being prescribed and administered.

Remember, prevention is key. Give dogs, cats, and ferrets a heartworm preventive all year long and test for heartworm annually during your pet’s wellness exam.

by Elisabeth J. Giedt, DVM

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