Heartworm disease is most commonly found in dogs, cats and ferrets, as well as foxes, wolves, and coyotes. Humans may also be at risk, although in rare instances. It’s serious and potentially fatal for pets. With the increase in mosquitos in our state, it’s important to be aware of the risk of heartworms, and take appropriate precautions for your pets.
Untreated, heartworms can cause severe lung disease and heart failure, as well as damage other vital body organs.
What are Heartworms? Heartworms are just as disgusting and horrifying as the name suggests – they’re up to a foot long, and they live inside the heart, lungs, and arteries.
Adult female heartworms also produce tiny baby worms called microfilaria that circulate through the bloodstream of affected animals. Baby. Worms. Think about that…
How is Heartworm Disease Transmitted? Mosquitos are nature’s vampires. Basically, little flying monsters that suck blood when they bite, and leave you itching like mad. When an infected animal is bitten by a mosquito, it not only ingests the blood, but also the microfilaria contained in the host’s blood. Over the next 10-14 days, the microfilaria mature into infectious larvae.
The mosquito is now highly infective, primed and ready to transmit the larvae the next time it bites an animal. It will take about six months for the larvae to mature into adult heartworms, and from there, the cycle begins all over again.
- Mature heart worms can live for 5 to 7 years in dogs and up to 2 or 3 years in cats.
- Each mosquito season put animals at risk for developing the disease or growing numbers of worms in already infected animals.
Signs of Heartworm Disease in Dogs In the early stages, many dogs will show few symptoms or worse, no symptoms at all. The longer the infection is present, the more likely symptoms will develop. Get your dog tested, and onto a course of preventive treatment if your vet recommends it. Signs of heartworm disease may include:
- Mild persistent cough
- Lethargy/avoids exertion
- Fatigue after moderate activity
- Decreased appetite
- Weight loss
As the disease progresses, pets may develop heart failure and a swollen belly as excess fluid builds up in the abdomen. Dogs can also develop a sudden blockages of blood flow in the heart, leading cardiovascular collapse. This is marked by the sudden onset of labored breathing, pale gums, and dark, bloody or coffee-colored urine. Without prompt surgical removal of the blockage, few dogs survive.
Signs of Heartworm Disease in Cats While most heartworms do not survive to adult stage in cats, it can happen. The signs can be very subtle or very dramatic. Symptoms may include:
- Coughing or asthma-like attacks
- Periodic vomiting
- Lack of appetite
- Weight loss
Occasionally an affected cat may have difficulty walking, experience fainting or seizures, or suffer from fluid build-up in the abdomen. Sadly, the first sign in some is only the sudden collapse or death of the cat. There is no medication for treating heartworm infections in cats, so prevention is the only option.