You may be surprised to know that a single mosquito bite can cause heartworm disease in your pet. Heartworm disease is a severe and potentially fatal condition that affects dogs, cats, and other mammals, including, in rare cases, people. Once established in the body, heartworms primarily invade the cardiovascular system, leading to severe complications if left untreated. However, with proper understanding, preventive measures, and timely treatment, you can minimize heartworm disease’s impact. Our Wales Animal Clinic team spotlights heartworm disease during April’s National Heartworm Awareness Month, explaining how you can help keep your pet safe and healthy from this debilitating condition.

Understanding heartworm disease in pets

Caused by the tiny parasitic worm Dirofilaria immitis, heartworm disease is frequently diagnosed in pets. While once considered a summertime malady, heartworm disease is found in all 50 states and occurs any time of year. When a mosquito carrying heartworm larvae bites an animal, the larvae enter the bloodstream and migrate to the heart and adjacent blood vessels, where they mature into adult worms over several months. These adult worms can grow to a foot in length and cause heart and pulmonary artery blockages, leading to respiratory and cardiovascular complications, including heart failure.

Heartworm disease signs

Early detection is critical with any disease, and regular veterinary exams and screening tests can detect heartworm disease at an early stage when treatment is less costly and invasive. Cats’ heartworm disease signs are often mistaken for allergies, asthmatic attacks, or respiratory illnesses. Infected dogs rarely exhibit heartworm disease signs until the condition has progressed and the heartworms are mature. As the disease takes hold, dogs’ signs may include:

  • Coughing
  • Lethargy
  • Exercise intolerance
  • Labored breathing
  • Nose bleeds
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fluid accumulation in the abdomen
  • Fainting or collapsing

Treating heartworm disease in pets

Heartworm disease treatment can be complex and challenging, particularly in advanced cases. Treatment’s goal is to eliminate the adult worms while minimizing major organs’ complication risks. Initially, treatment uses a combination of medications, including an adulticide to kill the adult worms and anti-inflammatory drugs to manage inflammation. Heartworm medication is administered in multiple doses to kill the worms gradually over several weeks or months. This gradual approach minimizes the risk of infected pets’ complication risks, such as pulmonary embolism, associated with an overabundance of worms’ sudden death. In severe cases, surgical removal of the worms may be necessary.

How to prevent heartworm disease in pets

Prevention is best when trying to help ensure your pet avoids diseases and illnesses. In managing heartworm disease, prevention is easier and more cost-effective than treatment. Effective preventive measures include:

  • Monthly heartworm preventives — These veterinarian-prescribed medications are highly effective at killing heartworm larvae before they mature into adult worms, thus preventing infection.
  • Annual heartworm screening — During your pet’s routine exam, our Wales Animal Clinic veterinarian provides a thorough physical exam and screens for parasites, including heartworm disease. Before starting your pet on a heartworm preventive, we must test them to ensure your furry pal isn’t heartworm-positive. 
  • Risk management — To help minimize your pet’s contact with mosquitoes, you should cut down tall grasses and weeds in the yard, dump out standing water in bird feeders and water features, and avoid taking your pet outdoors during peak mosquito times—dawn and dusk.

You can help prevent your pet from contracting heartworm disease. By understanding disease transmission, signs, and treatment options, and, most importantly, taking preventive strategies, you can stop heartworm disease from affecting your pet. Consult with our Wales Animal Clinic team to have your pet tested and started on a comprehensive heartworm prevention plan tailored to their needs.