Heartworm is a life-threatening illness that results in organ failure and death if left untreated. Here, our Madison vets explain it is essential to protect your pet against this mosquito-borne disease.
What is heartworm disease?
Heartworm disease is spread through mosquito bites and is primarily caused by a parasitic worm called Dirofilaria immitis.
Pets including dogs, cats, and ferrets may become hosts for heartworms, meaning the parasitic worms live, mate, and produce offspring in the animal's body. The illness is called heartworm disease because the worms live in the heart, lungs, and blood vessels of an infected pet.
What are the symptoms of heartworm disease?
Sadly the symptoms of heartworm disease do not appear until the disease has become more advanced. The most common symptoms of heartworm disease include swollen abdomen, coughing, fatigue, weight loss, and difficulty breathing.
How is heartworm disease diagnosed in pets?
Your vet can complete blood tests to detect heartworm proteins (antigens), which are released into the animal's bloodstream. Heartworm proteins can't be detected until about five months (at the earliest) after an animal is bitten by an infected mosquito.
What if my pet is diagnosed with heartworm?
Treatment for heartworm varies between cats and dogs. Heartworm treatment is often lengthy, uncomfortable, and potentially dangerous for your pet—and expensive for you. This is why we say prevention is the absolute best treatment for heartworm disease.
If your pet is diagnosed with heartworm disease, your vet will discuss potential treatment options with you. For dogs, an FDA-approved medication (melarsomine dihydrochloride), which contains arsenic, will be given via a series of injections into your dog's back muscles. This treatment option is toxic to cats so your vet will discuss alternative therapies with you.
Heartworms can live in dogs for 5-7 years while in cats typically only live for 2-3.
How can I prevent my pet from getting heartworm disease?
It's important to keep your pet on preventive medication in order to prevent heartworm disease. Even if they are already on preventive heartworm medication, our vets strongly recommend that dogs be tested for heartworms annually.
Heartworm prevention is safer, easier, and much more affordable than treating the progressed disease. A number of heartworm preventive medications can also help protect against other parasites such as hookworms, whipworms, and roundworms.