Heartworms: How can they harm my pet and what can I do to keep my pet safe?

Several years ago, my husband and I adopted a lab/terrier mix who we named Rylee.  A sweet shy girl who had been at the rescue for a couple of years and was heartworm positive.  At the time we, like a lot of people, were not fully aware of the dangers of heartworms but knew it was a concern. So after treatment to kill the heartworms, she tested negative and has at every annual exam since. We make sure to give her the monthly heartworm prevention because we do not want her to be re-infected. Since this is a devastating disease with possible long term effects that could cause health issues and/or decrease quality of life, I find it extremely important to inform my friends, family and clients who are pet parents of how this infection is contracted and how easily preventable it is. I asked my veterinarian, Dr. Katherine Wolfe with Indian Trail Animal Hospital, for input on this topic and she was more than willing to share her knowledge and experience. Dr. Wolfe stated that “heartworms can live 5-7 years in a dog, if the dog survives the infection.” “Preventing heartworm disease is EASY because we have a number of effective and affordable products to fit any lifestyle and budget.” Below are the responses to the questions posed to Dr. Wolfe.  What are heartworms? Heartworms are a parasite that live in an animal’s heart/lungs and associated blood vessels. How do pets contract heartworms? Heartworms are always transmitted by mosquitoes. A mosquito bites an infected dog and picks up the baby heartworms called microfilaria. These “babies” mature in the mosquito to an infective larval stage. When the mosquito bites another dog/cat, they deposit the larva into them. The larva travel to the infected animal’s heart and mature over the next 6 months. These heartworms can live 5-7 years in a dog, if the dog survives the infection. What type of pets are susceptible to contracting heartworms? The dog is a natural host for heartworms–ie: the parasite can mature, mate and produce offspring in a dog. Heartworms can affect cats and ferrets as well. How do heartworms affect a pet in the initial stages and what long term effects may be suffered? Most dogs show few symptoms in the early stages, although damage to their heart is occurring. The longer the infection persists, symptoms will develop such as mild persistent cough, exercise intolerance, weight loss and decreased appetite. Eventually, heart failure and cardiovascular collapse will develop.  Is there a certain time of year that pets can contract heartworm disease? Dogs/cats are at risk all year round. Heartworm disease has been seen in all 50 states. Mosquitoes can come inside so all dogs and cats are at risk. I hear, “but my dog is mostly indoors” all the time but those pets are still at risk. In my own personal experience, I have seen a number of dogs get infection in the winter, particularly after we have had a warming spell in January/February. How I can prevent my pet from contracting heartworm disease? Preventing heartworm disease is EASY because we have a number of effective and affordable products to fit any lifestyle and budget. Heartworm preventatives can be oral flavored tablets, topical liquid applied on a pet’s back and even an injection that lasts 6 months. A lot of these products also prevent intestinal worms and sometimes fleas too. We recommend testing for heartworm disease prior to starting any product, but for some types of preventative, it is required.  Should I give heartworm prevention to my pet every month, even in cold months when there aren’t any mosquitoes? Mosquito species are constantly changing and some are adapting to cooler climates. Several species can even overwinter indoors. Unfortunately, trying to predict when the temperatures are sufficiently low to kill all mosquitoes is getting more and more difficult. The American Heartworm Society and all veterinarians strongly recommend giving heartworm prevention all year round, every month. Also, these products are continuing to kill intestinal parasite, which continue all year round as well.  At what age should pets be tested for heartworms and how often should they be tested? We usually start puppies and kittens on heartworm prevention at their first visit, usually around 2 months of age. (Remember, we are also using the product to prevent reinfection with intestinal parasites, common in puppies/kittens, too!) Heartworm preventions are based on weight so it is important to weigh them at each vaccination booster visit. If a puppy started heartworm prevention before they were 6 months old, we generally check them for heartworms at 1 yr of age. If a pet has missed one month of preventative, we restart the preventative and retest in 6 months. If they have missed multiple months, we recheck their heartworm test before restarting preventative.  Why is it better for my pet and less expensive for me to prevent heartworms than to treat them once my pet has been infected? It is important to recheck heartworm tests annually to be sure the prevention program is working. Heartworm preventions are highly effective but infection can occur. Dogs can secretly spit out or vomit up a pill…if an owner gives it late…etc. Initially infected dogs, who likely show no symptom, recover much better if their infection is detected early.  If my dog tests positive for heartworms, what is involved in heartworm treatment and how much is cost of typical treatment? Heartworm treatment for dogs is very expensive–usually $800-1200 depending on an infected dogs’ size. It consists of three deep intramuscular (in their back muscles) injections of an adulticide, melarsomine. One injection is given initially followed by the 2nd and 3rd 30 days later.  Why do I have to keep my dog quiet during the several months he’s being treated for heartworms? It is quite a difficult treatment plan for owners and their pets. Dogs have to have severely restricted activity for 30 days after each injection, which is not fun especially infective worms. Once my dog has heartworms and has been treated, can he get them again? During and after treatment for heartworms, we STRONGLY recommend continuing monthly heartworm prevention. Consistent heartworm prevention should prevent reinfection.  Dr. Wolfe, is there anything else that you would like to state?  Dr Google” will always find “slow kill method” when searching for heartworm disease. Slow kill refers to using ivermectin-based heartworm preventions monthly alone as a suggested alternative to melarsomine treatment. This method is not recommended because we now know that damage to the heart and lungs continues without using the adulticide treatment (as mentioned above).  Note: According to the American Heartworm Society, “there is no approved drug therapy for heartworm infection in cats, and the drug used to treat infections in dogs is not safe for cats.”  View the videos in the link below from the American Heartworm Society: https://www.heartwormsociety.org/pet-owner-resources/video-gallery To find out more about Dr. Wolfe and the team at Indian Trail Animal Hospital, please visit http://www.indiantrailanimalhospital.com/ Happy Paws & Pet Pals LLC Your pets, happy at home! 704-491-7964 happypawsnc@yahoo.com www.sitpet.com

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