Welcome to Dr. Michelle’s Corner. This month, Dr. Michelle Rudd of Crofton Veterinary Center discusses heartworm prevention.
Well it is finally warm and now we can spend some time outside with our 4 legged friends! Unfortunately with the warm weather and increased time outside our pets are more susceptible to parasites and in particular heartworms. Heartworm disease is a potentially fatal disease that affects primarily dogs but also can affect cats, ferrets, foxes, coyotes and wolves. Heartworm disease is caused by foot long worms that live in the heart and lungs and associated vessels and can result in severe lung disease and heart failure. Heartworm disease is spread by mosquitoes and is seen all over the United States.
Dogs are the natural host for heartworms meaning that the adult worms can live and reproduce in the dog. Adult worms will produce babies called microfilaria that live in the blood stream of dogs. When a mosquito takes a blood meal from an infected dog these microfilaria will be picked up and develop in the mosquito into infective larvae over 10 to 14 days. When the infected mosquito then bites a dog (or cat, fox or other susceptible host) these larvae will enter into the blood stream of the dog through the mosquito’s bite wound and develop into mature heartworms. It takes about 6 months for the larvae to develop into a mature worm. Heartworms can live for 5 to 7 years in dogs and 2 to 3 years in cats.
While signs of heartworm disease in dogs can be quite serious often in the early stages most dogs appear normal. As the disease progresses many dogs develop coughing, reluctance to exercise and fatigue after activity, decreased appetite and weight loss. More advanced stages of heartworm disease result in heat failure and cardiovascular collapse, known as caval syndrome. This form of the disease often results in the need for surgery and many dogs do not survive. Treatment for dogs affected by heartworm disease is available. The treatment involves a series of injections deep into the muscle that are often painful and require several weeks of exercise restriction. Even after treatment there can be damage to the heart, lungs and arteries of affected dogs that can permanently affect their long term health and quality of life. There is no treatment available for heartworm positive cats.
Prevention of heartworm disease is much easier, less expensive and the best option for our companion dogs and cats. There are several oral and topical heartworm preventatives available to help make it easy to keep your dogs and cats heartworm free. Heartworm preventatives are prescription products available from your veterinarian. You should discuss with your veterinarian the different options available to help determine which preventative is right for your pet. Year round prevention is recommended no matter where you live and many products help prevent against both heartworms and intestinal parasites too. Once yearly blood testing is also recommended as not all products are 100% effective especially if given late or if months are accidently skipped. This simple blood test can easily be done by your veterinarian.
It is important to discuss heartworm risk factors with your veterinarian and prevention options. Together with the help of your veterinarian you and your furry friends can safely enjoy the summer months!
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