With the calendar turning to March, many people are beginning to anticipate the coming of spring and warmer weather. As we all know, the arrival of warm weather in northeast Indiana also means the return of one of summer's biggest pests—the mosquito. Mosquitoes pose a significant health risk to our pets, as they are the vector of heartworm disease, a potentially deadly parasitic disease that can affect both dogs and cats. The following article provides a brief overview of heartworm disease, including how pets become infected, and how the disease is diagnosed, treated, and, most importantly, prevented.
Heartworm Life Cycle:
Mosquitoes become infected with microfilariae, or "baby heartworms", while taking a blood meal from an animal that is infected with heartworms. Once the microfilariae have matured within the mosquito they can be passed to another susceptible animal as the mosquito feeds. After a dog or cat is infected it takes approximately 6 months for the larvae to mature into adult heartworms. These adult heartworms live within blood vessels of the lungs and occasionally within the heart (hence the name "heartworms"), causing significant damage and clinical signs in affected pets. Some of the most common clinical signs displayed by animals with heartworm disease include:
· Coughing or difficulty breathing
· Lethargy or exercise intolerance
· Decreased appetite
· Weight loss
Heartworm disease is most commonly detected by simple blood tests run by your veterinarian, however signs of heartworm disease may also be identified with diagnostic imaging (e.g., x-rays, ultrasound). It is important to remember that infected pets may not show signs of disease for several months to years; therefore, it is critical to have pets screened regularly for heartworm disease so that the disease can be detected and treated early.
Treatment of heartworm disease by giving medications to kill the adult heartworms is possible for infected dogs, however the treatments are expensive and can be very hard on the dog. Most dogs need to be cage rested for several days to weeks during treatment and, although most dogs can be successfully treated, there is always a risk for complications, including sudden death. Unfortunately, cats respond differently to heartworm treatment and will often develop serious complications in response to the dying heartworms. Consequently, there is currently no approved medication for the treatment of heartworm disease in cats in the United States and most infected cats are simply provided with supportive and symptomatic care.
Unfortunately, heartworm disease is a relatively common problem in this part of the country. In fact, a 2010 heartworm incidence map produced by the American Heartworm Society reported an average of 1-26 cases annually per veterinary clinic in Northeast Indiana. This is a troubling statistic because heartworm disease is an easy disease to prevent in our pets if they are maintained on an effective preventative program.
Heartworm prevention involves the administration of preventative products that act to kill immature heartworm stages inside the pet before they take up residence within the heart and lungs. In general, heartworm prevention is very safe for the pet and is inexpensive to the pet owner, especially in comparison to the high costs of treatment for this disease. Most preventative products are administered monthly by the pet owner, either as a topical liquid or an oral medication. Maintaining a good heartworm prevention program is truly one of the most important things that a pet owner can do to keep their pets healthy.
Your veterinarian can make recommendations on what products and testing protocols they recommend for your pet. However, it is ultimately the pet owner's responsibility to take heartworm disease seriously and to maintain the preventative program diligently. This is the time of year to be proactive about heartworm prevention and to make sure that your pet is appropriately protected before mosquito season is in full swing.
For more information on heartworm disease and its diagnosis, treatment, and prevention contact your veterinarian or visit the website of the American Heartworm Society™.
Waynedale Animal Clinic
6221 Bluffton Road
Ft. Wayne, IN 46809
Dr. Hugh S. Glidewell, DVM
Dr. Andrew W. Riebe, DVM
or visit www.waynedaleanimalclinic.com
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