You ensure your pet receives the best veterinary care possible, so they can live a long, happy, and pain-free life. One strategy to help accomplish this goal is to protect your pet from contracting a preventable disease. Heartworm disease is one of the most devastating—and preventable—conditions pets face. Despite safe, proven, and easy-to-administer preventives, the disease continues to infect and kill countless pets every year. Our Driftwood Animal Hospital team believes that high-quality and frequent communication is critical to spreading heartworm disease awareness and stopping this infectious disease’s spread. Consider the following questions to assess your heartworm knowledge, and follow our tips to prevent your pet from contracting this disease. 

Do you know how heartworm disease is spread?

Many myths surround heartworm disease’s spread. Heartworm disease is not contagious. A healthy pet cannot contract the disease from being in contact with an infected pet. In addition, an affected pet cannot infect a person. Only an infected mosquito’s bite can transmit heartworms. When a mosquito bites an infected animal, the bug ingests immature heartworms (i.e., microfilariae) from the animal’s bloodstream. These microfilariae mature into infective larvae inside the mosquito. When an infected mosquito bites a healthy pet, the bug transmits the heartworm larvae into their bloodstream.  

Do you know how heartworm affects a pet’s body?

After an infected mosquito’s bite, the infective larvae enter a pet’s bloodstream, where they travel to the heart and lungs, maturing into adult heartworms that can grow up to 12 inches long. These adult worms reproduce and live in the infected pet’s heart and pulmonary vessels, seriously damaging their cardiovascular and respiratory systems. As the heart becomes clogged with worms, the organ pumps less blood to the rest of the body, and heart failure can result. If left untreated, heartworm disease can kill a pet. 

Do you know which pets are susceptible to heartworms?

Heartworm disease affects dogs, cats, and ferrets, but heartworms also live in other mammal species, including wolves, coyotes, and foxes. Because wild species, such as foxes and coyotes, live in proximity to many urban areas, they are considered important disease carriers.

Heartworm disease in cats is very different from heartworm disease in dogs. The cat is an atypical heartworm host, and cats with adult heartworms typically have few if any adult worms. Because a cat’s heart is small, the presence of one or two adult worms can block blood flow, resulting in caval syndrome, which is fatal unless your veterinarian surgically removes the worms. 

Do you know that mosquitoes can live year-round?

Some pet owners mistakenly assume that living in a state with a colder climate means their pet cannot contract heartworm disease during the winter, and others only administer their pet’s heartworm preventives during warmer months. However, heartworm disease has been reported in all 50 U.S. states, and all pets—regardless of the season or geographic location—are vulnerable. Certain mosquito types can survive in cooler temperatures, and they can also hitch a ride into your warm, cozy home on an unsuspecting pet’s fur. In addition, because heartworms take six months to mature into adults, it’s very possible for a pet to initially test negative but actually be carrying undetected heartworm disease for some time before your veterinarian detects the condition. 

Do you know how often your pet should be tested for heartworms?

Veterinarians use simple blood tests to check for heartworms. An antigen test detects specific heartworm proteins, which adult female heartworms release into a pet’s bloodstream. Another test detects microfilariae in a dog’s bloodstream, which—because only adult heartworms can mate and produce microfilariaeindicates that a dog is infected with adult heartworms. Veterinarians strongly recommend that all pets have an annual heartworm test—including those who take heartworm preventives. Before starting or restarting your pet’s heartworm prevention medication, your veterinarian will test your furry pal.

Do you know heartworm disease signs in pets?

Most pets will not show clinical signs until heartworm larvae have matured and begin to cause vascular inflammation. Early heartworm disease signs may include:

  • Persistent cough
  • Exercise intolerance
  • Lethargy or fatigue

As the infection progresses, thickened blood vessels and large adult worms cause blood flow resistance, and increase the demand on the heart and lungs. At this point, heartworm disease signs may include:

  • Decreased appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Swollen abdomen 
  • Collapse
  • Heart failure

Do you know how to protect your pet from heartworm disease?

Heartworm prevention is more affordable and safer than treatment. Heartworm treatment is available for dogs, but the process is expensive, painful, and prolonged, involving four to six months of strict crate rest while the worms die off. For dogs who have a heavy worm burden, the treatment process can be life-threatening if the dying worms form a clot in the major vessels. Unfortunately, no safe treatment is available for feline heartworm disease. Once cats are infected, the only option is medical management for their clinical signs. 

Year-round parasite preventives are the best way to protect your pet from heartworm disease. Heartworm prevention medication works by killing the immature heartworm larvae that a mosquito has transmitted through their bite. Your pet is at risk for heartworm disease infection if you do not administer their preventive medication throughout the year.  

Prevent your pet from contracting heartworm disease by ensuring they receive year-round heartworm preventive medications, annual testing, and regular wellness care. If you do not have a heartworm prevention plan in place for your pet, schedule an appointment with our Driftwood Animal Hospital team, and we will ensure your pet receives year-round protection from this deadly disease.