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Heartworm Disease & Prevention

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Heartworm Disease & Prevention

Every dog (and even cat) is susceptible to heartworm disease. Heartworm disease is a mosquito-borne illness in which dogs become infected with parasites in various organs of the body. Left untreated, the disease can cause death. Unfortunately, the disease is on the rise in many states that were formerly considered low-risk and as a result, recommendations for prevention methods are changing. Here are some important things to know to keep your pooch parasite-free and your mind at ease.   

What Is It?

Dirofilaria immitis, otherwise known as heartworm, is a type of parasitic roundworm that infests a variety of animal hosts. Infection occurs when a mosquito bites to take a blood meal and transfers the heartworm larvae from host to host, where it grows and invades various tissues, arteries, and organs. It can cause severe damage to the lungs, heart, and blood vessels. Without proper diagnosis and treatment, the infestation will continue to spread and can ultimately result in death.

Dogs are a favorable host for this parasite, but other known hosts for the disease include coyotes, foxes, raccoons, and even sea lions. Humans are not favorable hosts for this parasite and the likelihood of humans contracting heartworm disease is extremely rare. The disease is found in all fifty states of the U.S. and throughout other areas of the world. The prevalence of the disease largely depends on whether or not the climate is favorable for mosquitoes. Consequently, the southeastern United States is an area where heartworm is a very extensive problem, while the western portions of the U.S. have relatively few reported cases.

However, thanks to the frequent transportation of dogs across the country, warming climate trends, and the unpredictable element of wildlife carriers, the disease has effectively been "expedited" across most of the U.S. According to the American Heartworm Society, 1 heartworm positive dog in the neighborhood can substantially increase the risk for exposure to other pets.   

What Are the Symptoms?  

Most dogs are asymptomatic in the early stages of the disease, which means that preventative testing is the best method of ensuring that your pet is heartworm-free. By the time you have begun to notice symptoms, it may indicate that the parasite burden has reached an advanced level. In order of increasing severity, some of symptoms of heartworm disease include:

  • Fatigue
  • Mild, persistent cough
  • Weight Loss
  • Decreased appetite  
  • Swollen, bloated belly
  • Pale gums
  • Labored breathing
  • Heart failure
  • Collapse

If your pet is exhibiting any of these symptoms and you suspect that heartworm disease is a possibility, be sure to have your local veterinarian examine your dog as soon as possible.  

Prevention & Testing    

So what's the good news? The good news is that heartworm disease is completely preventable and also treatable.

Heartworm prevention can be given as an oral tablet, topical applications, or a long-lasting injection. Regardless of your method or where you live, you should make sure that your pet has comprehensive coverage throughout the year. Many oral heartworm preventatives also contain an intestinal deworming element to ensure complete parasite control.    

Heartworm testing is a very simple and inexpensive diagnostic procedure. Your veterinarian will need a small blood sample to test for the presence of the notorious parasite. Even if your pet is on heartworm preventative 24/7, it is still best practice to perform the test once a year. Missed doses, resistant strains of the disease, and product fallibility all leave a small chance for exposure to occur. Should your pet test positive for heartworm disease, there are treatment plans capable of curing your pet from the disease. Treatment is fairly common, though not without certain associated risks and financial costs.

Consult your veterinarian for heartworm prevention recommendations and more information on the disease prevalence in your area. By diligently using heartworm prevention, you will not only be protecting your own pet from heartworm disease, but you will help to mitigate the spread of infection and spare other dogs from possible exposure.

And that's a heart-happy feeling.

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