As a pet owner and veterinnarian, heartworm disease sounds especially awful to me.
Who wants to think about their beloved pet suffering from the presence of a tubular parasite living in the heart and blood vessels?
Heartworm disease is common in the U.S. and is one of the most life-threatening infectious disease affecting pets. Fortunately, it’s a very preventable disease provided pet owners partner with their veterinarians to provide routine diagnostic testing and preventative medications.
Let’s cover the basics of heartworm disease and its diagnosis and prevention.
What is Heartworm Disease?
Heartworm refers to irofilaria immitis, a parasitic nematode (roundworm) that definitely does not belong in your dog’s body.
There are four classes of heartworm disease (I-IV), which cause clinical signs increasing in severity with progression of class.
With Class I, your pet may show no clinical signs or could just exhibit a mild cough.
As the disease progresses through Class IV, pets will appear more-obviously ill and can show decreased appetite, weight loss, unkempt appearance and eventually breathing problems and heart failure.
Sometimes you don’t know if your pet has heartworm disease until it becomes more advanced, which is why it’s crucial to team with your veterinarian to regularly be aware of your pet’s status (hopefully negative) and to focus on prevention of the spread of heartworm disease.
How is heartworm disease spread?
Heartworm is spread by the bite of a mosquito. Not all mosquitoes carry heartworm, as the parasite enters mosquitos only after feeding on the blood of a heartworm-positive animal.
Additionally, not all animals carry heartworm disease. Heartworm positive pets or carriers like coyotes, feral cats, seals, and other wildlife are potential sources for mosquitos to pick up the parasite while taking a blood meal.
Dogs can’t directly spread heartworm disease to each other, but an infected pooch can serve as a carrier and potential source of infection for other dogs in the household. If a mosquito comes along and bites the positive dog in a household and then bites the other dog in the household, then transmission can occur.
Are Dogs and Cats both susceptible to heartworm disease?
Yes, both dogs and cats are susceptible to heartworm disease. It’s more common in dogs, as they tend to spend more time outside in environments where mosquitoes can thrive. Some cats lead to an indoor/outdoor existence, so they are just as prone as their nine counterparts.
Simply because a cat has an indoor existence is not a sufficient reason to not take preventative measures as pertains to heartworm disease. Mosquitos are able to get inside through open windows, doors, and places were screens are damaged. So, no animal is really 100% safe from the potential to contract heartworm disease.
The American Heartworm Society’s FelineHeartwormDisease reports:
“Although outdoor cats are at greater risk of being infected, a relatively high percentage of cats considered by their owners to be totally indoor pets also become infected. Overall, the distribution of feline heartworm infection in the United States seems to parallel that of dogs but with lower total numbers.”
Cats infected with heartworm disease can have clinical signs like feline allergic bronchitis (“feline asthma”) and the diagnosis may be missed if the appropriate diagnostics (blood testing, x-rays, trans-tracheal wash for cytologic evaluation, etc.) aren’t pursued during routine wellness or illness appointments.
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