Heartworm Prevention for your Pets
April is Heartworm awareness month. If you have ever brought a dog in for its annual checkup, heartworm testing and preventatives have likely been discussed and recommended. While the heartworm life cycle can be somewhat complex, there are a few simple takeaways that you should know as a pet owner.
Heartworms cause a serious and sometimes fatal disease in dogs. Dogs are a host for heartworms, which mean they can mature and reproduce within the body. Heartworms can grow up to a foot in length, and can cause significant damage to the heart, lungs, and surrounding blood vessels.
Mosquitoes are the major vector for heartworms. Mosquitoes bite an affected animal and then transfer to a new host, spreading the disease. If you have ever gone outside in the summer, you know how quickly mosquitoes bite. This means any dog can be at risk, even if it only goes outside to go to the bathroom.
Dogs are typically asymptomatic in the early stages of the disease. Most dogs do not show symptoms right away, and positive cases are often identified through routine heartworm testing. As the disease progresses, possible signs include coughing, exercise intolerance, lethargy, weight loss, reduced appetite, and respiratory changes. This is one reason why yearly testing is important.
The disease is very different in cats. Cats can in fact develop heartworm disease, but they are not a natural host. This means heartworms have a more difficult time maturing in the body, and the number of worms present in the body tend to be low. As a result, testing for this disease in cats is trickier. When symptomatic for heartworm disease, cats are typically more affected in the lungs rather than the heart.
Heartworm prevention is effective and safe. There are different forms on the market, including oral medications, topicals, and injections. Some are combination products, offering additional protection against intestinal parasites, and in some cases fleas or ticks.
Heartworm treatment is expensive, lengthy, and hard on your pet. Treatment consists of oral medications as well as a series of injections administered in the muscle. Most owners find the hardest part to be the strict exercise restriction required throughout the duration of treatment (several months). This is to avoid severe cardiovascular side effects as the heartworms are killed.
Year round heartworm prevention is your safest bet. The temperature outside plays a major role in mosquitoes successfully transmitting heartworms from one host to another. However, temperature fluctuations can mean that transmission could still be occurring even in the winter. To avoid this, the easiest way to go is to continue preventative use year-round.
If you have any questions about heartworm testing or the best preventative options for your pet, please call our office at 410-687-1111, or ask at your pet’s next checkup.
– Dr. Heather Preston
Essex Middle River Veterinary Center provides medical and surgical care for cats and dogs at our animal hospital and veterinary clinic in Essex, Maryland, just outside of Baltimore. Our services include preventive wellness care exams, vaccines, spays/neuters, and a variety of specialized care. Our state-of-the-art veterinary offices are conveniently located near I-695 where we see pets from Towson, Honeygo, White Marsh, and other neighboring Baltimore areas.