Normally an active dog, Max has been slowing down. Instead of chasing the frisbee with abandon, he retrieves it half-heartedly. And, his appetite hasn’t been great recently. Concerned, Max’s family takes him to their veterinarian, and a quick test confirms he has heartworm disease. While the disease is treatable, treatment is difficult and time-consuming, and Max has a long road to recovery. What is heartworm disease, and how did Max get it? Could anything have been done to prevent his illness? Here are the answers to these important questions, and more. 

What are heartworms?

Heartworms are a type of parasite that lives in the heart, lungs, and blood vessels of dogs and cats. They can grow to more than 12 inches long, and can cause lasting damage and health effects, despite treatment. At least one million dogs in the U.S. have heartworm disease, and the average number of heartworm-positive dogs seen per clinic has increased 21% nationwide. Heartworm disease has been diagnosed in all 50 states, so knowing about this prevalent parasite is important. 

How do pets get heartworms?

How does your pet get heartworm disease? Infected mosquitoes transmit this disease by biting your pet—a single bite is all it takes. In the U.S., 22 mosquito species carry heartworms, all active at different times of day and during different seasons, including winter, when they will become active during a warm snap, and look for a meal—a large meal at that, because a ravenous mosquito will drink up to three times their body weight in blood. So, because an infective bite is possible at any time, your pet must be protected year-round.

How are heartworms hazardous for my pet?

Heartworm disease causes severe, irreparable damage to your dog’s circulatory system and lungs, and can be fatal. Heartworms living in the blood vessels and heart cause significant inflammation and obstruct normal blood flow. Without treatment, heartworms continuously multiply, and eventually build to a burden that overwhelms the circulatory system and causes death. With treatment, the infection is cleared, but scarred lungs and vessels can cause life-long problems.

How can I prevent heartworms in my pet?

The good news—safe, effective, and affordable medications are available that prevent this disease. They work by eliminating the immature heartworms in their larval stage, stopping them from maturing into adults that will reproduce, and damage your pet’s heart and lungs. Regardless of what you may read on the internet, no “natural” remedies are effective in treating or preventing heartworm disease. All heartworm medications should be FDA-approved and acquired only by prescription from your veterinarian. The preventives come in many forms, from a monthly chewable to a yearly injection, and our Animal Medical Hospital of Naples team can help you choose the best option for your pet. 

How often should my dog be tested for heartworm disease?

The American Heartworm Society recommends that dogs be tested every 12 months to ensure they are heartworm-disease negative and, if they do have regular prevention, to confirm that the medication is working appropriately. The fast, simple test takes only a few drops of blood and 10 minutes for results, and works by detecting proteins specific to adult heartworms.

Can cats get heartworms?

Cats are more resistant to heartworm infection than dogs, which leads to lighter heartworm burdens, but their presence can still cause illness, including heart disease, cough, lethargy, and weight loss, and sudden death. Unfortunately, no effective treatment is available for cats with heartworm disease, so year-round prevention is much more important. 

How are pets treated if they have heartworms?

Heartworm disease treatment to kill the mature worms involves multiple deep muscle injections over several months, along with strict cage rest. Additional diagnostics, such as bloodwork and X-rays, may be necessary. Depending on disease severity, affected pets may also need medication to control inflammation or heart failure. Treatment is not only painful and difficult because of the activity restriction, but also expensive—treatment can cost up to 15 times a year’s supply of preventive. Prevention truly is the best medicine. 

Is your furry family member protected from heartworm disease? Our Animal Medical Hospital of Naples team would be happy to develop a heartworm testing and prevention program customized to your pet. Contact us to schedule an appointment, and protect your pet from this pesky parasite.