Heartworm disease is a very serious condition that can result in heart failure, lung disease, damage to other organs and even death. The disease is typically found in cats, dogs and ferrets. Here, our vets explain why preventing the disease is the best course of action.
What is heartworm disease?
Heartworm disease is spread through mosquito bites and is primarily caused by a parasitic worm called dirofilaria immitis.
Pets including dogs, cats and ferrets may become definitive hosts, meaning that worms live inside the animal, then mature into adults, mate and produce offspring. We call this serious condition heartworm disease because the worms live in the heart, lungs and blood vessels of an infected pet.
What are the symptoms of heartworm disease?
Symptoms of heartworm disease typically don't appear until the disease is advanced. The most common symptoms of heartworm disease include swollen abdomen, coughing, fatigue, weight loss and difficulty breathing.
How does my vet check my pet for heartworms?
Your vet can complete blood tests to detect heartworm proteins (antigens), which are released into the animal's bloodstream. Heartworm proteins can't be detected until about five months (at the earliest) after an animal is bitten by an infected mosquito.
What if my pet is diagnosed with heartworms?
Keep in mind that treatment for heartworm disease may cause serious complications and be potentially toxic to your pet's body. Not only that, but treatment is also expensive because it requires multiple visits to the veterinarian, bloodwork, hospitalization, x-rays and a series of injections. This is why we say prevention is the absolute best treatment for heartworm disease.
That said, if your pet is diagnosed with heartworms, your vet will have treatment options available. FDA-approved melarsomine dihydrochloride is a drug that contains arsenic. It kills adult heartworms. Melarsomine dihydrochloride will be administered via injection into your pet's back muscles in order to treat the disease.
Topical FDA-approved solutions are also available. These can help to get rid of parasites in the bloodstream when applied directly to the animal's skin.
How can I prevent my pet from getting heartworm disease?
It's important to keep your pet on preventive medication to prevent heartworm disease. Even if they are already on preventive heartworm medication, we recommend that dogs be tested for heartworms annually.
Heartworm prevention is safer, easier and much more affordable than treating the progressed disease. A number of heartworm preventive medications can also help protect against other parasites such as hookworms, whipworms and roundworms.