April Is A Great Time to Talk About Heartworms
April is a Great Time to Talk About Heartworms!
Heartworm disease is discussed often on this blog and with good reason; it is a very serious and potentially fatal disease for dogs, about which every pet owner should be well informed. As pet owners, being informed about heartworm disease and the dangers it poses is very important to your pet’s health. Heartworm is found all over the world, especially in areas where mosquitos are prevalent and near waterways and coastlines. The length of mosquito season often directly correlates to the level of heartworm rates in dogs in any given area. We'll talk about what heartworms are, how to detect and treat the disease should it befall your pet and most importantly how to AVOID heartworm disease, through the application of preventative medicine on a regular basis. If you are a Voyce user already, did you know you can program your heartworm medication application in the Reminders section of your profile? Alerts via email and in your profile can help ensure you never miss one again!
What is heartworm disease, and how does it spread?
Heartworms are long hair-like worms found in the heart and the large blood vessels adjacent to the heart, caused by a blood-borne parasite called Dirofilaria immitis. They grow and reproduce within the heart and blood vessels, eventually leading to blockages and reduction of blood flow to vital organs, causing organ damage and failure.
Heartworm is spread by infected mosquito carriers. A female mosquito bites a heartworm-infected dog and through her blood meal ingests the microfilaria or heartworm larvae. The larvae of the heartworm develop further in the mosquito’s gut and then travel to the mosquito’s mouthpart. When the same mosquito bites an uninfected dog, the microfilaria migrates into the bloodstream of the dog, then move through the bloodstream towards the heart and large blood vessels. There, the microfilaria will mature into adult heartworms, mate and produce more microfilaria offspring over the next 6-7 months. The microfilaria live mainly in the small blood vessels of the bloodstream, while adult heartworms migrate to the heart, clogging the heart and the major blood vessels leading from it, as well as interfering with valve actions in the heart.
What are the symptoms of heartworm disease?
It can sometimes take several years from the time of infection before dogs show clinical signs of heartworm disease, and often by the time the signs are seen, the disease is usually well advanced. Clinical signs of heartworm disease are a soft, dry cough, shortness of breath, weakness, nervousness, listlessness, and loss of stamina, most noticeably after exercise. The appearance of clinical signs depends on the number of worms in the dog’s body, their location, the length of time heartworms have been in the dog, and the degree of damage that has been done to the heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys. Because damage from heartworms is caused through clogging blood vessels, blood flow to vital organs is restricted, causing organ malfunction and eventually failure, if left untreated.
How is heartworm diagnosed?
Heartworm cannot be diagnosed until it has been in the dog’s body for at least 6 months, as the initial microfilaria need to mature into adults in order to be detected by testing. Thus, heartworm disease is generally diagnosed in dogs between two and eight years old. Adult heartworms may live up to five years, and produce millions of microfilaria. Testing for heartworm disease is done by one or more simple blood tests to diagnose the disease, and then further diagnostic tests will be done to ensure the dog can safely undergo treatment.
What are the treatments for heartworm disease?
Treatment for heartworm disease in dogs usually involves two types of injectable drug treatments- one to kill the mature heartworms, and one to kill the microfilaria. Typically, these injections will be given thirty days apart, but your veterinarian will determine the best course of treatment based on your dog’s condition. An antibiotic may also be prescribed to combat the potential bacteria that inhabit the heartworms, along with antihistamines and anti-inflammatory medications. Pain medications, special diets, diuretics to remove fluid from the lungs, and drugs to help improve heart function may be required prior to heartworm treatment. Post- treatment, some dogs may need to be treated for heart failure for the remainder of their lives. Heartworm disease treatments are usually effective and fatalities are rare.
Complete rest is essential after heartworm treatments. The injections essentially work to kill the adult worms, which decompose and are then carried to the lungs, where the body eventually reabsorbs them. This can take several weeks to months, and post-treatment complications can be caused by the fragments of dead heartworms, so your dog must be kept as quiet and still as possible during the month following treatments.
What will the prognosis be for a dog treated for heartworm disease?
Dogs usually improve quite drastically after treatment, especially if they have been exhibiting clinical signs of heartworms. Most pet owners see their dogs display renewed energy and liveliness, improved appetite and weight gain.
With heartworm, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Having your dog tested annually, and giving your pet a monthly heartworm preventative goes a long way to avoiding painful and costly treatment options once heartworm is diagnosed. You veterinarian will be able to advise you on which preventative medications are best for your dog, and whether round-year treatment is necessary, depending on the area you live in. with the accessible and affordable heartworm preventatives on the market today, no dog should ever have to endure heartworm disease.