Did you know that April is Heartworm Awareness Month? Heartworm disease is a serious public health issue in the United States. Over 100,000 dogs contract heartworm each year. That doesn’t even take into account cats, ferrets, and wild animals that can become infected.
What is this harmful (and also deadly) disease and how can you keep your pup safe?
What is Heartworm Disease?
Heartworm disease is a parasitic infection that transmits via mosquitoes. Once a dog becomes infected from a mosquito bite, the parasite travels in the dog’s bloodstream to its heart and lungs where it begins to grow. It takes about 6-7 months for the larvae to mature into adult heartworms when it will then mate and lay eggs before dying.
A heartworm can live up to 7 years inside your dog and the females can grow up to a foot long. There can be a single worm living in your pet or up to 250 worms in advanced conditions.
Heartworm is only transmissible through a mosquito bite, meaning your dog cannot catch heartworm from another animal with heartworm disease.
What’s with the Name ‘Heartworm’?
A heartworm is a parasite that first enters the body through the bite of an infected mosquito and then makes its way to the heart, lungs, and other organs. The name “heartworm” is pretty accurate because that’s where it starts. However, because it can end up in many different locations within the dog’s body, it’s also called a “broad-spectrum lungworm.”
Why is Heartworm Disease so Dangerous?
Heartworm disease is a very serious infection. It is important to remember that even though heartworm is prevalent in the United States, it can still be prevented.
The CDC recommends that all dogs be tested for heartworm and treated for the disease if found positive. Dogs that are treated early on are more likely to survive the infection. Unfortunately, many heartworm-positive dogs are not treated, and then go on to develop life-threatening heart conditions.
Heartworm disease is also dangerous for humans. Although rare, the disease can cause a heart-related condition called “heartworm disease encephalitis” in humans. Encephalitis is inflammation of the brain, which may leave the infected person with symptoms such as severe headache, fever, nausea, and vomiting. Humans should never attempt to treat a heartworm infection themselves.
What are the Symptoms of Heartworm Disease in Dogs?
The disease can be detected in dogs early on by a change in their behavior. If a normally energetic dog becomes listless and weak, he may be showing symptoms of heartworm disease.
The symptoms of heartworm disease in dogs are highly variable, depending on the age of the dog, the severity of the heartworm infection, and the health of the dog’s heart and lungs.
However, heartworm-positive dogs may experience any or all of the following symptoms:
- Increased thirst and urination
- Distended chest, which could indicate fluid buildup around the heart and abdomen
- Dullness or anemia
- Swelling in the neck or abdomen
- Lethargy, inactivity, or weakness
- Dizziness, collapsing or fainting
- Respiration difficulties such as shortness of breath or difficult or noisy breathing
- Dry persistent cough, especially after exercising
- High heart rate
- Shallow rapid breathing or panting
- Weight loss and loss of appetite
- Vomiting or coughing up blood
How do you Diagnose Heartworm Disease in Dogs?
There are several ways to check if a dog has heartworm disease; the most common are a blood test and a heartworm test. A heartworm test will look for the presence of heartworm larvae in the dog’s bloodstream, while a blood test will check for antibodies that manifest in response to heartworm infection. These antibodies are found as early as 5 months after being bitten by the infected mosquito.
If you suspect that your dog has heartworm disease during Heartworm Awareness Month, it is best to take him to a vet as soon as possible for a proper diagnosis. The earlier heartworm is detected, the better his chances of survival.
To diagnose heartworm disease, your veterinarian will conduct a thorough physical examination on your dog, as well as take several samples for testing. These may include:
- Blood tests to check for heartworm disease
- A chest x-ray to view the heart and lungs
- Heartworm disease diagnostic samples, such as a sample of the dog’s urine or feces
- A sample of the dog’s tears for an eye examination
How do you Treat Heartworm Disease in Dogs?
One thing that makes treating heartworm in dogs difficult is that there are no home remedies for it. To get rid of the disease, your dog will need a course of drugs prescribed by a veterinarian. These treatments can be expensive and hard on your dog. The first set of drugs should be given once every two weeks for six months. A monthly dose of preventive medication will be required for the rest of the dog’s life.
Advanced heartworm disease may lead to “caval syndrome” where the heartworms physically block the blood flow to the heart. This is a life-threatening problem that can only be treated with surgery.
If you have any doubts about your dog’s health, it’s important to get them checked out. Heartworm can grow into an extremely serious illness if not treated soon enough, so don’t let ignorance turn what could have been a small issue into something much more complicated and costly.
Top Tips for Prevention During Heartworm Awareness Month
If you live in an area where heartworm is common, like here in Georgia, it’s important to take steps to protect your dog from this disease.
The easiest way to keep your dog safe is by using a monthly heartworm preventative. This typically comes in pill form or a chewy block that looks like a dog treat and it’s given once a month year-round.
The expense may seem like a lot, but the monthly cost of preventives is far cheaper than treating a dog with heartworm disease.
It’s important to note that these monthly chews can not be used to treat a dog who is already infected with heartworm, in fact doing so could make the condition worse so dogs should always be tested for heartworm before beginning the preventative regimen.
Here are some other ways to help prevent and treat heartworm disease in your pets.
Test yearly for heartworm – Get heartworm testing for your dog each year at their check-up, especially if they are not on a preventative medication. Dogs who miss one or more doses of their monthly preventatives need immediate testing.
Ask about heartworm vaccination – If you don’t want the hassle of remembering a monthly pill, talk to your vet about heartworm vaccination. One shot, given at their yearly checkup, can protect your dog for 12 months.
Don’t forget flea and tick preventatives – Fleas and ticks can transmit diseases, such as Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever, which is dangerous for your dog. Monthly flea and tick preventatives can also help repel mosquitos, which are known to carry heartworm.
Keep your dog healthy – Feeding your dog a healthy diet, and making sure they get plenty of exercise is an important way to ward off all kinds of diseases that can affect your pup.
Take action- If you or your dog’s veterinarian suspect that your dog has heartworm disease, take action right away. The longer you wait, the more progressed the disease will get and the harder it will be to fight.
Heartworm Awareness Month: Do We Need to Worry About Heartworm in Georgia?
Unfortunately, heartworm is a concern in the state of Georgia, and the early signs may be easy to miss. That’s why we recognize Heartworm Awareness Month as a time to pay attention to these signs and bring awareness to the disease.
Take proper precautions such as using a monthly heartworm preventative, watching your dog closely for unusual symptoms or behavior, and talking to your vet right away if something doesn’t seem right.
If you have any questions or concerns that your dog may have heartworm, contact Animal Care Center today to schedule an appointment.