Heartworm disease is a serious condition that's typically found in dogs, cats and ferrets. Symptoms can result in severe lung disease, heart failure, organ damage and even death for pets. Here, our Baltimore vets explain why prevention is critical.
What is heartworm disease?
Spread through mosquito bites, heartworm disease is primarily caused by a parasitic worm named dirogilaria immitis.
Definitive hosts can include our beloved pets - cats, dogs and ferrets, who can harbor these parasites that mature into adults, mate and produce offspring. This serious condition is known as heartworm disease since the worms reside in the heart, blood vessels and lungs of an infected pet.
What are the symptoms of heartworm disease?
Typically, we will only see symptoms of heartworm disease once the condition has advanced. Common symptoms include weight loss, fatigue, difficulty breathing, coughing and swollen abdomen.
How does my vet check my pet for heartworms?
Your vet can perform blood tests to look for heartworm proteins (antigens), which are released into the animal's bloodstream. these proteins won't be detected until about five months (at the earliest) following a bite from an infected mosquito.
What if my pet is diagnosed with heartworms?
Remember that heartworm disease treatment may result in serious health complications for your pet, and can potentially be toxic. In addition, the treatment is costly as it requires multiple vet visits, hospitalization, bloodwork, a series of injections and x-rays. This is why we advise our clients that prevention is the absolute best treatment for heartworm disease.
However, if your pet does receive a diagnosis of heartworm disease, there are treatment options available. Your vet may use FDA-approved melarsomine dihydrochloride - a drug that uses arsenic to kill adult heartworms. To treat the disease, your vet will inject melarsomine dihydrochloride into your pet's back muscles.
Topical FDA-approved solutions are also an option. When applied directly to your pet's skin, they can help eliminate parasites in the bloodstream.
How can I prevent my pet from getting heartworm disease?
Preventive treatments and medication for heartworm disease are critical to your pet's health, so ensure these are kept up to date. We also advise our clients to have dogs tested for heartworms annually, even if they are already on preventive heartworm medication.
Heartworm prevention is easier, safer and much more affordable than treating the disease when it's advanced in your pet's body. Several heartworm preventive medications can also help protect your pet against other parasites such as whipworms, roundworms and hookworms.