All dogs and cats should be on a heartworm prevention. Unfortunately, according to the American Heartworm Society, 75% of veterinarians report positive cases of heartworm in their practices.
Heartworm disease is a potentially fatal but preventable disease. According to Dr. Jody Jones-Skibinski of Cotner-Superior Pet Care, heartworm disease can cause organ damage, leading to heart failure and death.
“Even with treatment,” she noted, “there are long-term consequences including chronic coughing, and a less active and shorter life span.”
Heartworm disease is spread through the bite of a mosquito. The AHS website explains: Adult female heartworms living in an infected animal produce baby worms that circulate in the bloodstream. If a mosquito bites an infected animal, it picks up these baby worms, which develop and mature into larvae. When the infected mosquito bites another animal, the larvae enter the animal through the mosquito’s bite wound. Once the larvae are inside the animal, they develop into sexually mature adult heartworms within six months. The lifespan of these adult heartworms then depends on whether the host is a dog or a cat.
Dogs are a natural host for heartworms, which means that heartworms that live inside the dog typically mature into adults. Adult heartworms can live for five to seven years. If untreated, they will mate and produce offspring. The average number of worms living inside a dog can be as high as 250.
In contrast, cats aren’t a natural host for heartworms, which means that most heartworms in cats don’t survive to the adult stage. Those that do mature into adults tend to live only up to two or three years. In addition, cats with adult heartworms typically have just one to three worms. Unfortunately, cats with only a few worms are still at risk of heartworm disease.
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Signs of heartworm disease in dogs may start with few if any symptoms. However, as more and more heartworms crowd the heart, most dogs will develop a mild, persistent cough and other symptoms such as fatigue after moderate activity, decreased appetite and weight loss.
Signs of heartworm disease in cats can range from subtle to dramatic.
“Instead of heart failure in dogs,” said Jones-Skibinski, “heartworm in cats will cause breathing difficulties like those seen in asthma.” Other symptoms include periodic vomiting, difficulty in walking, and fainting episodes or seizures. As with dogs, cats might also suffer from lack of appetite or weight loss. Unfortunately, the first sign in some cases is sudden collapse or death.
Even when dogs can be successfully treated for heart disease, prevention is still the best option. Their health and quality of life can be lessened even after the parasitic worms are gone due to the worms causing irreversible damage to a dog’s heart, lungs and arteries.
For cats, the only option is prevention. The medication used to treat heartworm infections in dogs cannot be used in cats. Instead, corticosteroids are used until the worms die. Over the two to three years that the disease is managed, immature worms can cause symptoms of asthma, and mature worms can cause extensive damage to the lungs.
According to AHS, heartworm disease has been reported in all 50 states. To prevent your dog or cat from becoming a victim, talk with your vet today about heartworm preventatives.