No pet owner wants to hear their pet has been diagnosed with heartworm disease. This serious disease can lead to lifelong damage in your pet’s heart, lungs, and surrounding blood vessels, and can be fatal if left untreated. Fortunately, heartworm disease prevention is simple, and can protect your pet from more than heartworms. Take a close look at this mosquito-borne illness to learn how you can best shield your furry pal from heartworm disease.

What is heartworm disease in pets?

Heartworm disease is transmitted through the bite of an infected mosquito. Heartworm larvae, or microfilaria, are deposited at the bite wound, enter your pet’s body, and travel through the bloodstream to the vessels surrounding the heart and lungs. This migration can take six months, during which time the microfilaria reach adulthood. If a male and female adult heartworm are present, they can reproduce, creating more microfilaria to continue the lifecycle. 

Can all pets, including cats get heartworm disease?

Heartworm disease can occur in all mammals, including cats, horses, and people. However, heartworms prefer to set up residence in dogs and wild canines. Since other mammals are not the preferred host, heartworm infections are typically smaller and less common, although they are no less serious.

What are the signs of heartworm disease in pets?

Cats and dogs show different heartworm disease signs, although both species may not show signs for months or years after the initial infection. Dogs, as the preferred host, display the following classic heartworm disease signs:

  • A soft, dry cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weakness
  • Exercise intolerance

These signs are most noticeable following exercise, when some dogs may become disoriented or sometimes faint. In severe cases, congestive heart failure will develop, causing the abdomen to swell with fluid as the heart struggles to pump properly.

Cats can develop a much wider range of signs. Some cats may display no obvious signs, while others can develop serious neurologic issues, such as blindness, seizures, circling, and incoordination. Cats most commonly exhibit signs similar to asthma, collectively termed heartworm-associated respiratory disease (HARD). An infected cat may display difficult or rapid breathing, or coughing, similar to asthma, but they may also vomit, lose weight, or be anorexic, and may suddenly collapse or die. If your pet is experiencing any of these symptoms, contact us immediately to schedule a visit with one of our veterinarians. 

How will I know if my pet has heartworm disease?

Since heartworm disease often takes years before signs become obvious, annual testing is recommended to ensure your pet is heartworm-free. During your furry pal’s yearly wellness visit at Leawood Plaza Animal Hospital, we’ll take a small blood sample for a heartworm test. This test will check for adult female heartworms, so false negative results are possible. For example, an infected mosquito may have bitten your pet three months ago, which means the heartworms have not yet reached adulthood. Annual testing will also help to catch any of these life cycle gaps, ensuring your pet remains disease-free. 

How can I protect my pet from heartworm disease?

Although heartworm disease can be serious, and sometimes fatal, the condition is preventable. If your dog contracts heartworm disease, treatment can take months of exercise restriction peppered with injections of an arsenic compound deep into the back muscles. For cats, no treatment is available, and supportive nursing care is the only option. Since treatment is so tough on dogs, and nonexistent for cats, you must ensure you protect your four-legged friend from this disease.

Fortunately, a variety of heartworm prevention options are available for pets. If your cat simply refuses to take a pill—and you have the scars to prove it—ask us about our topical heartworm preventives. Depending on your pet’s needs, health status, and allergies, we can devise the perfect parasite prevention protocol to ensure they’re protected from heartworm disease year-round.   

Heartworm disease is a serious concern for cats and dogs. Ensure you protect your pet during the height of mosquito season this year—stock up on heartworm preventives for year-round protection. Give our Leawood Plaza Animal Hospital team a call to discuss the best prevention options for your pet.