If you have a furry member in your family, you have heard of heartworms and probably have purchased some sort of preventative medication. But what really ARE heartworms? In this post, we will cover everything that you need to know about keeping your pet safe against these deadly parasites.
What are heartworms and where do they come from? The USDA defines heartworms (Dirofilaria immitis) as a parasitic worm that causes heartworm disease which results in severe lung disease, heart failure, other organ damage, and death in pets. They are transmitted by mosquitos and, although dogs are the natural host for heartworms, cats are susceptible as well (American Heartworm Society). Mosquitos pass the larvae to your pet where they then develop into fully grown adult heartworms in as little as 30 days. The adult heartworms reproduce until as many as 100 heartworms live in the heart. Mosquitos thrive in warm, humid climates and the AHS states that over 100 cases were reported in 2013 in Georgia alone.
How do I know if my pet has heartworms? In the early stages of heartworm disease, dogs and cats will show little to no symptoms. As the disease progresses, pets will show clinical signs of illness such as a mild and persistent cough, fatigue, decreased appetite, and weight loss. When in the severe stages, dogs will have a swollen belly from excess fluid in the abdomen and heart failure. Cats will experience coughing, asthma-like attacks, periodic vomiting, lack of appetite, weight loss, fainting, and seizing. Heartworm disease, in its later stages, is very painful and fatal without treatment. A lot of times, pets will not show obvious symptoms until the disease is in its late stages.
How are heartworms treated? Once a blood test confirms that your pet is heartworm positive, the first step is to stabilize your pet then kill all adult and immature worms by injecting harsh chemicals into the muscles. This lengthy process takes 6-8 months and is very painful for your pet. Although treatment, even in the later stages, is successful in most cases, prevention is ALWAYS the best and least expensive treatment in the fight against heartworm disease.
How do I prevent heartworms? All dogs 12 months and older should be tested annually for heartworms. Puppies should begin heartworm preventative medication at 4-6 weeks and cats should begin their prevention as soon as they begin their vaccinations. There are currently a selection of great preventative medications on the market. For example, the meaty chew HeartGard for dogs contains “ivermectin”, which works to treat the disease backwards by killing any existing larvae from the past 30 days, preventing adult heartworms from forming as well as protects against intestinal parasites. Another option for dogs is Trifexis, which prevents against heartworms as well as fleas. It contains “milbemycin oxime”, which also works to kill heartworms and intestinal parasites in the early stages of their cycle. For cats, a product called Revolution contains “selamectin”, which protects against heartworms as well as fleas, intestinal parasites, and ear mites. The doses of medication in these products are low to keep your pet safe, therefore each one should be administered every 30 days in order to ensure the most protection against the disease. If your pet misses a dose, make sure to bring them in to be tested for heartworms and then continue on a preventative. While such medications may seem costly, heartworm preventative ranges from $85-$145 for a year supply (about 8-12 per monthly dose), but treatment for heartworm disease can cost you not only thousands of dollars, but your pet’s life. Call us and see how you can keep your pet healthy and stop the spread of heartworms by purchasing and regularly administering preventative medication.