The Heartworm Lifecycle
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 hosts for heartworms, meaning the parasitic worms live, mate, and produce offspring in the animal's body. The illness is called heartworm disease because the worms live in the heart, lungs, and blood vessels of an infected pet.
Symptoms of Heartworm Disease
Symptoms of heartworm disease typically don't appear until the disease is advanced, and can become life-threatening. The most common symptoms of heartworm disease include swollen abdomen, coughing, fatigue, weight loss, and difficulty breathing. It can also lead to heart failure, severe lung disease and damage to other organs.
Diagnosing Heartworm Disease in Pets
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.
Treatment for Pets Diagnosed with Heartworm
Treatment for heartworm varies between cats and dogs. Heartworm treatment is often lengthy, uncomfortable, and potentially dangerous for your pet—and expensive for you. This is why we say prevention is the absolute best treatment for heartworm disease.
If your pet is diagnosed with heartworm, your vet will discuss potential treatment options with you. For dogs, an FDA-approved medication (melarsomine dihydrochloride), which contains arsenic, will be given via a series of injections into your dog's back muscles. This treatment option is toxic to cats so your vet will discuss alternative therapies with you.
Heartworms can live in dogs for 5-7 years while in cats typically only live for 2-3.
Heartworm Prevention & Testing
It's important to keep your pet on preventive medication to prevent heartworm disease. We recommend starting puppies and kittens on heartworm prevention no later than 8 weeks of age.
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.
The potentially deadly consequences of heartworm disease can be avoided, simply and cost-efficiently through annual testing and preventative treatments that we provide at Marcello Veterinary Hospital.
We recommend starting puppies and kittens on heartworm prevention no later than eight weeks of age. Dogs six months and older are required to be tested for heartworms before starting them on any regular heartworm prevention. We check for the presence of heartworm infection by collecting a small blood sample from your pet and using a SNAP test.
If your dog’s test results come back negative, then our veterinarians will start him or her on a preventive treatment that you will need to administer year-round for the rest of the animal’s life.
Thereafter, a heartworm test should be scheduled annually to ensure your pet remains heartworm free. Any gap in coverage may require another heartworm test prior to restarting on a preventative. These preventive medications come in several forms, including topical applications, 6-month injectables, and once-a-month oral treatments.
If your dog's test results come back positive, then we will offer treatment to potentially clear your dog of heartworm disease, however, it is a lengthy and costly process. Your pet will need to be kept calm for 30 days in order to avoid putting stress on the heart and lungs.
Cats should be put on a preventive treatment and tested as recommended by our veterinarians. Cats are not a natural host for heartworms however, just a few can make a cat very ill. Prevention in cats is critical because there is no approved drug treatment for heartworm infection in cats. When your cat receives a Feline Leukemia Virus/Feline Immunodeficiency Virus/Heartworm antigen combination test, he or she will be tested for heartworms. If your cat tests positive for heartworms, he or she can be helped with good veterinary care and a long-term management plan.
Because south Louisiana is a perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes, pet owners need to protect their pets year-round with preventive heartworm treatment and annual testing. Schedule a heartworm test today if you are in the nearby areas of Houma, Thibodaux, Morgan City, Raceland, or Mathews.