April is National Heartworm Awareness Month so we thought it appropriate to talk about this common and serious pet health issue.
What is heartworm?
Heartworm is a serious canine and feline disease caused by a parasitic worm called Dirofilaria immitis. Heartworm disease is caused by foot long worms that live in the heart and lungs of your pet and cause lung disease, heart failure and other organ failure.
Will my pet get heartworm?
Heartworm has been reported in all 50 states in the US but is more prevalent in the warmer, more humid areas in the east and southeast. The American Heartworm Society has prepared incidence maps so that you can examine the prevalence in your area. And the Companion Vector-Borne Disease (CVBD) World Forum has created one for worldwide incidence.
How do dogs/cats get heartworm?
Heartworm is spread through the bite of a mosquito. The host mosquito bites an infected animal, it ingests baby worms that mature within 10-14 days. When the infected mosquito bites another animal the infective larvae are transmitted to the new animal and they become infected as well.
What are the signs of heartworm?
Heartworm is known as a silent killer because frequently the damage is done before your pet shows any symptoms. That is why prevention is the most effective treatment.
Some initial signs might be:
- Soft, dry cough
- Weight loss
- Difficulty breathing
How is heartworm treated?
Heartworm can be diagnosed by a simple blood test. It is easily prevented, but not so easily treated. The objective is to kill the worms infecting their organs, without further damaging the organs. Typical treatment is a drug called Immiticide, an arsenic based injectable given to the pet on two or three occasions. It has to be administered over time to ensure complete removal of adult worms as well as any larvae.
It is imperative to closely monitor your pet and keep them quiet and contained during this treatment time as the possibility of organ damage from the dying worms is high.
How do I prevent heartworm in my pet?
Heartworm is easily prevented through regular dosing of ivermectin or similar heartworm medications. These drugs don’t prevent your dog from being infected, but they are designed to kill the larvae before they grow into worms. Most veterinarians recommend giving your pet these drugs every month. Some pet owners feel that’s a lot of toxicity to give to their pet, and is a consideration to keep in mind when deciding on a prevention program. There are more natural preventative measure such as mosquito spray and keeping your pets indoors when mosquitoes are out.
Can I catch heartworm from my pet?
Heartworm is only passed through mosquitoes. In very rare cases a human may develop heartworms, but the larvae do not complete their life cycle and results in only small tumors. Again, VERY RARE.
April is National Heartworm Month, a good time to educate yourself on heartworm and how to prevent your pets from contracting this disease.