April has been designated as National Heartworm Awareness Month. Don’t let April pass you by without educating yourself on this possible killer.
Sultry spring and summer days may cause dogs and cats to suffer from mosquito bites that can lead to heartworm disease, says Dr. Sonya Gordon, associate professor in the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences.
Dogs are usually the preferred host for heartworms, but cats are also susceptible to the disease, even indoor cats, Gordon notes. To protect your pet, preventative medicine should be used year round to avoid heartworm infection.
Pets are often infected when mosquitoes carrying heartworms bite the animal and pass on heartworm larvae into the tissue. The larvae mature as they travel through the tissue and eventually end up in blood vessels within the lungs, causing heartworm disease.
"Heartworms should really be called lungworms because they live in the blood vessels of the lungs, not the heart," Gordon says.
"However, if left untreated, heartworms can clog up the heart causing caval syndrome, which prevents blood from traveling through the right side of the heart and causes the belly to fill with fluid."
Gordon says symptoms of heartworm disease are usually heavy breathing, coughing and exercise intolerance. Pets with these symptoms should be taken to their local veterinarian for a blood test that can determine if the pet has heartworm disease.
Treating heartworm disease is generally a risky procedure since a toxic substance must be used to kill the worms that live in the blood vessels within the lungs. The body must then clean up the dead worms.
Treatment usually lasts two to three months, depending on the severity of the case, Gordon explains. During treatment the pet must be completely rested.
Costs associated with heartworms can be high. Treatment for heartworm disease can cost anywhere from $600 to $6,000 depending on the severity of the disease, while the preventative medicine costs only about $30-100 per year depending on the size of the pet, Gordon notes. Preventative heartworm medicine is given once per month to prevent adult heartworms from forming. If your pet has missed consecutive months, it would be a good idea to visit your local veterinarian for a routine blood test. Even pets who receive preventative medicine should have a blood test once per year to be sure they do not get accidentally infected.
"The best treatment for heartworms is preventative medicine," adds Gordon. "Pet owners have a variety of treatment options to choose from including tablets, tasty chewable tablets, topical medicines and even injections that can be given by your veterinarian twice per year. It is important to use the treatment that works best for you and your pet," Gordon says.
In this case, an ounce of prevention is definitely worth a pound of cure. By preventing heartworms from forming, you are saving your pet’s life and a lot of money.