Heartworms: What are they and how to prevent them

dr lee new bio photo 2015Veterinarian Mary Lee of Lone Mountain Animal Hospital in North West Las Vegas discusses how heartworms can affect your pet’s health and the importance of prevention

Heartworms do not discriminate.

They can affect any pet in the United States and many other parts of the world. Heartworms can live in dogs, cats, ferrets, and sometimes, even humans. Heartworm cases are found in many urban areas due to coyotes and foxes who are large carriers of the disease.

Heartworm disease can cause long term damage to the heart, lungs, kidneys, and arteries. One thing unique to this disease is the negative affect the parasites can have on the health of your pet long after they are gone.

The mosquito is the most common culprit in spreading the disease from one affected animal to the other. Adult female heartworms living in an infected mammal produce tiny baby worms called microfilaria. These microscopic baby worms circulate in the bloodstream and when the mosquito takes its blood meal, these worms are ingested as well. The baby worms then mature into larvae which is the “infective stage” over the span of 10 to 14 days. These larvae are then transferred through the mosquito’s bite wound on the next animal.

It takes six months for the larvae to mature into adults after entering the new host. Adult heartworms can live anywhere from five to seven years in dogs and two to three years in cats. These worms can reach up to 14 inches in length and your pet may show no symptoms until serious disease appears in the heart, lungs, kidney, and liver. By the time the heartworms make themselves known, your pet may be experiencing coughing, lethargy, or fainting spells.

Heartworm may not be as prevalent in Clark County as in southern states, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. According to the Companion Animal Parasite Council (CAPC) 16 positive cases of heartworm have been found out of the 2,708 dogs tested in Clark County. That number may seem miniscule, but when we break it down, that’s 1 out of 169 dogs-60 percent of positive cases of heartworm cases in the state of Nevada are found in Clark County. There are a number of factors that can affect these results such as the lifestyle and region your pet lives in and of course, parasite prevention efforts. Families that take their fur buddy on a trip to nearby states like California increase the risk of him being infected.

Veterinarians suggest to start preventative care for your pet when they are young. Puppies under seven months can start preventative care without a pretest. They should go on monthly preventative life long and annually receive testing after the first year to ensure they are heartworm free.

It is harder to detect heartworm in cats as they are more unlikely to have them. There are a few different methods to test for the disease in cats, and it is best to discuss these options with your local veterinarian. Cats should be tested before starting prevention and then re-tested as the doctor deems fit for your cat. There is no approved treatment for heartworm found in cats which means that prevention can be very important in the health of your pet.

Prevention is easy and less expensive when compared to treatment for a positive result. Annual testing for dogs is necessary, even if he is on year-round prevention. Heartworm medications are highly effective but nothing is guaranteed. If one dose is missed or given late, your dog goes unprotected. The best chance you can give your loved one against this parasite is prevention.

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