Heartworm Disease is a serious and potentially fatal disease in pets caused by foot-long worms that live in the heart, lungs and blood vessels. Heartworms cause severe heart failure, lung disease and damage to other organs in the body. Heartworm disease affects most mammals, but is predominantly seen in dogs,  and also cats and ferrets. 

How Does My Pet Get Heartworms?

Heartworm disease is carried by infected mosquitoes, which are very prevalent in the Midwest areas. If an infected mosquito bites your pet, then they are susceptible to testing positive for heartworm disease. It takes approximately six months for the heartworms to develop, so it would take just as long for your pet to test positive. Annual testing and prevention is the key to keeping your pet protected. 

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Heartworm Disease?

 In the early stages of the disease, many dogs show few symptoms or no symptoms at all. The longer the infection persists, the more likely symptoms will develop. Active dogs, dogs heavily infected with heartworms, or those with other health problems often show pronounced clinical signs. Signs of heartworm disease may include a mild persistent cough, reluctance to exercise, fatigue after moderate activity, decreased appetite, and weight loss. As heartworm disease progresses, pets may develop heart failure and the appearance of a swollen belly due to excess fluid in the abdomen. 

How Do I Know if my pet is Negative or Positive?

Many factors should be considered, even if heartworms do not seem like a problem in your local area. If your pet goes outside at all, they are exposed to heartworm disease. It is also important to remember mosquitoes can get into your home and can live in winter conditions. There are few, if any, early signs of disease when a dog is infected with heartworms, so detecting their presence with a heartworm test administered by a veterinarian is important. The test requires just a small blood sample from your pet. Most veterinarians process heartworm tests right in their hospitals. Sometimes a sample will be sent for diagnostic testing to a lab. Either way, results are obtained quickly. 

What Are My Options for Preventing Heartworms?

Luckily, heartworm preventives are safe, relatively inexpensive and easy to give. Heartworm preventives come in different forms, including monthly chewable pills and topical medications, as well as an injectable medication that is given every 6 or 12 months. Heartworm preventives are available only by prescription from veterinarians. Although there are fewer mosquitoes in the winter, there is still a risk your pet could contract heartworm disease if prevention is stopped in colder months. Heartworm preventives work by treating heartworms that already infected the pet within the past month or longer; meanwhile, preventives need to be given on time, every time to be effective. That’s why the American Heartworm Society recommends year-round heartworm prevention for pets. An easy way to remember annual testing and preventative is to “think 12:” (1) get your pet tested every 12 months for heartworm and (2) give your pet heartworm prevention 12 months a year. 

What If My Pet Tests Positive?

If your pet tests positive for heartworm, your veterinarian will likely recommend a treatment course based on the overall condition and health history of your animal. If your pet has advanced heartworm disease, your pets doctor may ask you to restrict your animal’s activity, or to administer medications that will stabilize your animal’s condition before heartworm treatment can begin.

Our staff at Pet Health Center is here to help if you have questions or concerns about your pet regarding heartworm disease. The link provided below for The American Heartworm Society includes more information and resources just for pet owners.