You likely have heard about heartworm disease, but perhaps assume that it does not affect Kansas pets, that your dog is not at risk, or prevention is an unnecessary expense. Unfortunately, pets die each year from this easily preventable disease, and every pet owner should be aware of the following ten facts, to protect their furry friend.

#1: Heartworms are transmitted through a mosquito bite

Heartworms are large, parasitic worms of the species Dirofilaria immitis, which can infect your pet after a single mosquito bite. When a mosquito bites an infected dog, it picks up microscopic larval worms with the blood meal that develop in the mosquito’s gut, and can be passed on to other animals that the mosquito bites, which could include your pet.

#2: Heartworm disease causes significant organ damage

Larval worms deposited in your pet’s body migrate to the large lung vessels, mature over approximately six months, and begin replicating. Once adult worms start multiplying exponentially, a large population quickly accumulates in your dog’s body, causing significant inflammation and scarring to her heart and lungs. If left untreated, heartworm disease interferes with blood flow and heart function, and can cause death. Pets who are treated, and the infection cleared, are left with life-long lung damage that can lead to problems in later life.

#3: You do not need to live near an infected dog for your pet to be at risk

Canines are the heartworms’ preferred host, which means that in addition to pet dogs, wild canine species, such as foxes, wolves, and coyotes, serve as a potential infection reservoir. Your neighborhood dogs may be unaffected, or your closest neighbor may live a mile away, but heartworms affecting nearby wildlife can serve as an infection source for mosquitoes. If you live in a suburban or rural neighborhood, chances are good that a fox or coyote population is thriving nearby. In urban areas, stray dogs can serve as an infection reservoir.

#4: Your pet is at risk of developing heartworm disease

Although prevalence is highest in hot, humid states, heartworm disease has been detected in all 50 states, including Alaska. According to the Companion Animal Parasite Council, almost 900 heartworm disease cases were diagnosed in Kansas pets in 2019, and we will likely see a higher number in 2020. Every pet is at risk of this deadly disease, and must be protected. 

#5: Heartworm is silent until disease is advanced

Heartworm disease does not typically cause clinical signs until a significant worm population has accumulated in your pet’s heart and lungs, and signs then are still often vague, and overlooked by owners. Affected dogs may show signs that include:

  • Lethargy
  • Tiring easily
  • Decreased appetite 
  • Coughing
  • Vomiting

By the time an owner realizes their dog is sick, and is given a heartworm disease diagnosis, significant heart and lung damage may be present. 

#6: Heartworm treatment is hard on dogs

Heartworm treatment is available for dogs, but consists of several months of intermittent injections to kill adult worms, along with oral medications to kill the immature forms, reduce inflammation, and kill bacteria the worms carry. During treatment, pieces of dead worms can become lodged in your pet’s lung vessels, causing a deadly pulmonary embolism. To reduce this risk, throughout the treatment period, dogs must be confined in a crate or small room, and kept on strict exercise restriction, with no exercise other than short, controlled leash walks for bathroom breaks.

#7: Heartworm disease is easily prevented

Are you getting the picture that preventing deadly heartworm disease is much safer, easier, and less expensive than risking infection to your pet? Fortunately, prevention is as easy as giving your pet a monthly flavored chewable medication that kills microscopic worms before they can mature to adults. Leawood Plaza Animal Hospital carries several different heartworm preventives, and a team member can help you determine which option best meets your pet’s needs.

#8: Annual heartworm testing is a critical part of every pet’s wellness exam

Before your pet begins receiving a heartworm preventive, we will perform a quick blood test to confirm that she is not already infected. Once we receive a negative result, she can start the preventive, which she should receive for the rest of her life. We will repeat this test each year at your pet’s wellness exam, to ensure she didn’t become infected after an accidentally skipped dose.  

#9: Heartworm is a year-round risk

Your pet should receive year-round heartworm prevention for the rest of her life. Although mosquitoes can die during particularly cold winters with sustained freezing temperatures, recent mild winters present the perfect opportunity for hungry mosquitoes to emerge, looking for a blood meal. Since mosquitoes can buzz around any time the temperature rises above 50 degrees, year-round protection is critical. The heartworm preventives we prescribe also protect your pet from some intestinal parasites, which can infect your pet any time of year. 

#10: Heartworm disease also affects cats

Although dogs are the preferred heartworm host, cats can also be affected. The few worms deposited by a mosquito bite can mature and cause severe inflammation, although they cannot multiply inside the cat. Cats rarely display noticeable symptoms, but can collapse and die suddenly from pulmonary damage. Prevention for cats is critically important, as no treatment is available.

Are you rethinking your previous opinions about your pet’s heartworm disease risk? Contact us to schedule an appointment, to begin life-saving prevention.