heartworm diseaseHeartworm disease is something that is very common in Texas, but many pet owners don’t really know much about it. AVES wants pet owners to understand better the dangers associated with heartworm disease and teach them how to keep their pets protected.

What is Heartworm Disease?

Heartworm disease is caused by a pesky parasite called Dirofilaria immitis that enter the body and take up residence in the heart, lungs, and associated blood vessels. Heartworm disease can cause severe lung disease, heart failure, and other organ damage in afflicted pets.

This disease is very different in cats and dogs. Dogs are the natural hosts for heartworms. Heartworms can live inside a dog, mature into adults, and mate, which allows the parasite to produce offspring that also live inside the dog. Cats, however, are atypical hosts for heartworms. In cats, most heartworms don’t make it into the adult stage. While dogs can harbor hundreds of heartworms, cats generally only carry one to three worms. The disease is often undiagnosed in cats for this reason, but is also comparatively much more serious in cats than in dogs.

Heartworm disease is transmitted to our pets by mosquitos. Mosquitos take blood from infected animals, and the microfilariae (baby heartworms) transform into larvae inside the mosquitos. When the mosquito then bites another animal, these larvae infect the new host, and eventually reach the heart.

Symptoms of Heartworm Disease

There are four classes of heartworm disease. Class 1 generally doesn’t have any symptoms, or the symptoms are so mild that you may not realize they are symptoms. Class 2 presents with mild to moderate symptoms such as an occasional cough or tiredness after very little activity. Pets with Class 3 heartworm disease generally have a persistent cough, loss of body condition, and tiredness after mild activity. Pet owners may also notice that their pet has trouble breathing or shows signs of heart failure. Veterinarians may also see heart and lung changes in pets with Class 3 heartworm disease. Other symptoms include loss of appetite and weight loss. In later stages, heartworm can cause excess fluid to build up in the abdomen and make your pet’s belly look swollen. Organ failure can also occur and affect the lungs, liver, and kidneys in addition to the heart. Class 4 heartworm disease, also called caval syndrome, is an emergency situation and often presents with the symptoms that accompany a lack of blood flow to the heart due to blockages caused by a mass of worms (weakness, disorientation, collapse, etc.). Caval syndrome occurs when heartworm disease is left untreated. Other symptoms of caval syndrome include labored breathing, pale gums, and dark blood or coffee-colored urine.

In cats, symptoms are often either very subtle or very dramatic. The symptoms include coughing, lack of appetite, occasional vomiting, gagging, asthma-like attacks, and weight loss. Cats may also have difficulty walking and experience fainting spells or seizures. Fluid buildup in the abdomen can also be a symptom of heart disease. Unfortunately, sometimes, the first sign of heartworm disease is sudden collapse or sudden death.

Dogs and cats are tested yearly for heartworms, as it can take about five to six months for the parasites to be detectable in pets, and giving an infected pet heartworm treatment can cause very serious reactions.

Preventing Heartworm Disease

The easiest way to prevent heartworm disease is to put your dog or cat on heartworm preventatives and keep up with them! Your veterinarian can prescribe a monthly heartworm preventative pill to keep your pet safe from these parasites. There are also topical preventatives that can be used. Some dogs can also be given an injectable medication that prevents heartworm disease.

Prevention is much easier than treating heartworm disease, which is why veterinarians recommend that dogs and cats are given heartworm preventatives once a month for their entire lives.

Treating Heartworm Disease

Treating heartworm disease can be a long, distressing process for dogs. To kill adult heartworms, veterinarians can give dogs an injectable drug over the course of several visits. Animals undergoing heartworm treatment must be kept calm and inactive, or serious complications can occur.

For dogs with caval syndrome, treatment options are limited to surgical intervention, and if the disease has progressed to this point, it is often fatal.

For cats, there are currently no approved heartworm treatments, but some medications may help manage some of the symptoms of the disease. Prevention is the only way to keep your cat safe from heartworm disease.

To get your pet tested or treated for heartworm disease, contact AVES today at 512-343-2837. Our expert veterinarians can help your pet battle heartworm disease and manage the damage the parasites cause.