April is Heartworm Awareness Month
Heartworm disease is one of the most important and potentially devastating diseases of dogs in the United States, and is particularly prevalent in Southern Illinois.
What is Heartworm Disease?
Heartworm disease is caused by a worm called Dirofilaria immitis. The worms are transmitted from dog to dog by mosquitoes. Dogs will develop heartworms when they are bitten by a mosquito carrying the larva of Dirofilaria immitis, the larvae enter the dog’s skin through the mosquito bite and then migrate into the dog’s bloodstream. After several months, the worms mature into adults and live in the right side of the dog’s heart and the pulmonary arteries (the blood vessels that carry blood to the lungs). Adult heartworms can be 10 to 12 inches in length, and cause severe disease in the heart and lungs, leading to possible heart failure and blood clots in the lungs.
What are the signs of Heartworm Disease?
In the early stages of Heartworm infection, a dog may not show any signs at all. Once the worms have caused damage to the pulmonary arteries and lungs, the signs may include coughing, decreased energy, decreased appetite, and weight loss. Once the signs of heart failure start, the cough will increase, and you may see accumulation of fluid in the abdomen giving the dog a swollen belly appearance. In rare instances, dogs can have a condition called “Caval Syndrome” where there is a sudden obstruction of blood flow caused by the worms. Caval Syndrome causes a life-threatening cardiovascular collapse, and without immediate surgical removal of the heartworms usually results in death.
How are Heartworms diagnosed?
Heartworms can be diagnosed by a simple blood test. The American Heartworm Society (www.heartwormsociety.org) recommends that all dogs be tested for heartworms annually. It is very important to have your dog tested on a regular basis to catch heartworm disease in the early stages when the treatment is more successful. Heartworm tests will only detect the adult stage of the female heartworm in the dog. This means that a dog in the early months if infection will go undetected until the worms have matured into adults which can take five to six months.
Can Heartworms be prevented?
Heartworm disease is easy to prevent, but very difficult and expensive to treat if not prevented. Heartworms can be prevented by giving your dog a preventive pill once a month. Many of the monthly preventives also will control intestinal parasites and fleas. It is vitally important to give your dog the preventive every month, make sure that the dog swallows it, and to do it on a very regular schedule. Ask your veterinarian at Meller-James & Associates about testing your dog and starting a preventive. Remember, Heartworm Disease is easy to prevent, but difficult and expensive to treat.
Can Cats get Heartworms?
Yes, cats can be infected with heartworms, but the diagnosis and treatment for cats are very different from dogs. Cats are very sensitive to heartworm infection, and can become very sick with only one or two worms. Fortunately, heartworm infection is not as common in cats as it is in dogs. Ask your veterinarian at Meller-James & Associates about whether your cat should be on a heartworm preventive.