Keeping Heartworm Away
Heartworm disease is a potentially life-threatening condition caused by parasitic worms that can live in the heart and lungs of dogs, cats, and other mammals. The good news is that you can easily prevent it by giving your pet medication. However, owners must be vigilant to ensure that their pets are properly protected from this dangerous disease.
Heartworms are spread solely by mosquitoes, so areas with a large mosquito population will have a greater incidence of heartworm disease. As the name suggests, heartworms live in the heart and pulmonary vessels of an infected animal. The adult heartworms living in the heart produce offspring called microfilariae. When a mosquito bites an infected pet, it sucks out blood containing the microfilariae. After about 2 weeks in the mosquito, these offspring develop into infective larvae. This step is necessary for heartworm to spread. When the mosquito bites another pet, the infective larvae are passed on, and the process starts again as the larvae mature into adult heartworms. Heartworms cause severe damage to the hearts and lungs of an infected pet.
PROTECTING YOUR PET
The consequences of heartworms can be life-threatening, which is why it is so important to properly protect your pet from this disease. Fortunately, preventing heartworm disease can be as easy as giving your pet a monthly preventive—the key is making sure that you do it consistently. “The major cause of heartworm disease is pet owner noncompliance. Pet owners have to remember to regularly give their pets heartworm preventives,” says Dr. Tom Nelson, president of the American Heartworm Society.
Part of the problem for pet owners is that, in many regions of the United States, heartworm is seasonal. Depending on where you live, mosquito season can last only 3 or 4 months of the year or can be year-round. So it can be challenging not only to remember that you actually need to start heartworm preventives but also to know when to start them. “The American Heartworm Society is recommending that most pet owners now give year-round heartworm preventives,” says Dr. Nelson. This takes the guesswork out of remembering to start the medication and when. However, it is a good idea to ask your veterinarian about the schedule of prevention that he or she recommends.
START WITH A TEST
Before you begin administering a heartworm preventive, it is extremely important to have a test done to make sure your pet does not have heartworms. If the test comes back positive, your veterinarian will usually check the results with a second test.
The most common test used for detecting heartworms in dogs is an antigen blood test. This test detects specific antigens (substances that create an immune response within the body) from adult female heartworms. It takes 7 months from the time a dog is bitten by an infected mosquito until an antigen test can accurately detect the presence of adult female worms.
Even pets that spend most of their lives indoors need protection from heartworm.
Unfortunately, although antigen testing may be sufficient for dogs, detecting heartworms in cats can be a bit more complicated. Additional tests such as an antibody test, an echocardiogram (a noninvasive sound reading for visualizing areas within the body), or x-rays will be used to determine if there is an infection or if the cat has been exposed to heartworms.
PREVENTION IS THE BEST MEDICINE
Faithfully administering a heartworm preventive is essential for keeping your pet protected against heartworms. Many preventives will also protect your pet from other parasites like roundworms, hookworms, and even fleas. Most preventives are given on a monthly basis, so it is important to establish a regular routine for giving them to your pet. It is also a good idea to keep a record of each time you administer the preventive—this takes the guesswork out of remembering if and when it was given. A great way to help remember when to give your pet his preven-tive is to ask your veterinarian whether he or she offers a reminder service for regularly administered medications.
“The heartworm prevention products we have today are very effective, but unfortunately we are seeing an increase in this disease,” says Dr. Sheldon Rubin, Secretary of the American Heartworm Society. “Giving preventives faithfully is an easy way to protect pets from this devastating, yet extremely preventable, disease.”
JUST DO IT
The key to protecting your pet from heartworm disease is awareness. Although heartworm disease is treatable, the procedure is costly, and your pet may need to be hospitalized.
Heartworms are easy to prevent—you just need to remember to test per your veterinarian’s recommendations and give preventives regularly. Your veterinarian can help you decide the best course of prevention for where you live. Make heartworm prevention a regular part of caring for your pet—it is easy to do, and your furry companion will be glad you did.