Unfortunately, your dog is a natural host for the foot-long heartworms who, once inside your pet, mature into adults, mate, and produce offspring. Left untreated, the number of heartworms increase which can cause lasting damage to your dog’s heart, arteries, and lungs.
Fortunately, early recognition and treatment when needed can help. Prevention is even better. Here’s how to recognize the symptoms, when to call the vet, and tips on keeping heartworms out of your dog in the first place.
What Causes Heartworm Disease?
The parasite Dirofilaria immitis is a type of roundworm that resides inside your dog’s heart and blood vessels of the lungs. The disease is transmitted by mosquitoes. In addition to the heart and lungs it can affect the kidneys, eyes, liver, and central nervous system. If untreated, it can be fatal.
Signs and symptoms of Heartworms
In the early stages of the disease, heartworm symptoms are subtle and easy to miss, with signs often not appearing until six months or more after infection. Watch for these symptoms:
- Decreased appetite and weight loss.
- A mild yet persistent cough.
- Fatigue after moderate activity.
- Lethargy, or aversion to exercise.
If heartworms are causing heart failure, your pet could develop a swollen belly due to excess fluid in his abdomen.
Even the most vigilant pet owners might miss heartworm symptoms, so the best course of action is regular testing and preventative care.
Is Your Dog at Risk?
As heartworm disease can be found in all 50 states, your dog is likely at risk. The disease is more prevalent along the Mississippi River and in the southeast, but studies by the American Heartworm Society indicate the number of incidences are increasing throughout the U.S.
Even if your area of the country is not considered a risky one, the disease could suddenly appear and start to spread. For instance, after Hurricane Katrina many abandoned or separated dogs were sent around the country to be adopted by new loving families and they might have carried the disease with them. And don’t be lulled into believing your dog is safe if kept indoors because mosquitoes often make their way inside your home.
Diagnosis, Treatment, and Prevention
Blood tests detect the presence of heartworms in your pet and many vets run the tests right in the office with results delivered in minutes. Additional lab tests, cardiac ultrasound, and radiographs might be recommended if needed.
Treatment aims to kill the heartworms without harming your dog. A series of intramuscular injections, hospitalization, and home confinement with limited exercise is the normal course of treatment.
Heartworm treatment is time consuming, costly, and uncomfortable for your pet so the goal should always be to prevent the disease in the first place. Oral, topical, and injectable heartworm preventative medications are available from your vet and also help protect your dog against other internal parasites like roundworms. Have your dog tested regularly:
- Annual tests can be done during a routine vet visit.
- Puppies under seven months of age don’t need a heartworm test first.
- Dogs over seven months just beginning preventative care should be tested before starting.
Keep in mind that if your dog has heartworms and you try to give him heartworm prevention medication, it could make him extremely ill and even cause death. That’s why it’s always important to talk with your vet about testing and prevention.
Though preventative medications are highly effective, your dog can still become infected so be sure to continue annual testing for the life of your pet.
No one likes getting the news their dog has heartworms, but the good news is that most infected dogs can be treated and go on to live healthy lives. If you have any questions or concerns, ask your veterinarian who is always your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pet.