As a pet owner, ensuring the health and well-being of your furry loved ones is top priority. One of the most significant threats to our pets is heartworm disease. April is National Heartworm Awareness Month and with awareness comes prevention, and with prevention comes happy, healthy pets!

Read on to learn Five things all pet owners should know about heartworms and see what you can do to protect your pets.

1. What are Heartworms?

Heartworms are parasites, spread through mosquitoes carrying small larvae of this parasite from one host to another, that can infect dogs, cats, and other mammals. Once inside the body of your beloved pet they can grow up to twelve inches in length and live in the heart, pulmonary artery, and associated blood vessels of an infected animal. In some cases, the worms can even migrate to the brain, kidneys, and eyes. Although heartworm disease presents differently in cats and dogs, in both cases, left untreated it can cause severe and lasting damage to affected organs, an animal’s immune and respiratory systems, and even death.

2. Symptoms

Early stages of heartworm disease are rarely symptomatic, or the signs are so subtle they often go unnoticed. Even up to a year after infection, pets with heartworms may not exhibit any symptoms. Some cats never exhibit signs of the disease, making it extremely difficult to diagnose without proper testing. As the disease progresses dogs may show signs like a mild persistent cough, anemia, lack of energy, lack of appetite, vomiting of worms or coughing up blood, exercise resistance, a swollen abdomen, and congestive heart failure. In cats, signs are likely to be either very severe or very subtle. You may notice feline asthma or other bronchial issues, vomiting of blood and food, diarrhea, coughing and gagging, lethargy, and weight loss. Occasionally infected felines will have difficulty walking or may experience fainting, seizures, or an accumulation of fluid in the abdomen. Unfortunately, in some cases, the first sign of the disease in a cat is sudden collapse or death.

3. Diagnosis & Treatment

Diagnosing heartworm disease in dogs typically involves a blood test to detect the presence of heartworm proteins in your pet’s bloodstream. These tests should be done annually under the supervision of a licensed veterinarian. Most vets administer this test during your dog’s annual preventative exam and require a negative annual test result to prescribe preventatives. If your dog tests positive, your veterinarian will recommend a treatment plan based on the severity of the infection and your dog’s ability to handle treatment. Treatment often involves stabilizing the disease and minimizing symptoms before killing the worms with medication. Activity should be restricted during treatment to minimize complications and in some cases, surgery may be necessary to remove the worms or repair damage.

Although cats are far less ideal hosts for the parasitic worms than dogs, resulting in fewer and less mature worms, because of their smaller stature just one or two worms can cause greater damage and very severe illness or even death. To further complicate matters, diagnosis of cats can be complicated, requiring a physical exam, x-ray, complete blood count, and several kinds of blood tests. Unfortunately, there is no approved drug therapy for heartworm infection in cats and while some cats experience a spontaneous clearing of worms, the damage they caused may be permanent. Your veterinarian will stabilize your cat’s symptoms and develop a long-term management plan.

4. Year-round Prevention is Key

Heartworm disease has been diagnosed in all 50 states and multiple variables from climate variations to the presence of wildlife carriers, mean rates, and seasons for infection can vary dramatically from year to year, regardless of region. This variability makes it impossible to gauge risk factors at any given moment, and it is safe to assume that pets living anywhere in the United States are susceptible to heartworms year-round. Prevention of the deadly disease is far easier and less costly than treatment and significantly reduces the chance of severe illness or death. For this reason, the American Heartworm Association encourages everyone to “think 12” when it comes to heartworm disease. (1) get your pet tested every 12 months for heartworm and (2) give your pet heartworm preventative 12 months a year. The most common form of prevention is a monthly heartworm preventative medication in the form of an oral tablet, a liquid applied to the skin, or an injection administered once or twice a year. These preventatives kill heartworm larvae before they can mature into adults. It’s also important to keep in mind that because mosquitoes can enter the home, indoor cats are at risk year-round, as well.

5. Importance of Regular Veterinary Care

The importance of regular veterinary care when it comes to heartworm disease cannot be understated. Routine check-ups with your veterinarian are an essential aspect of care for any animal. In the case of heartworm disease, vets often use a dog or cat’s routine annual check-up to administer heartworm tests, prescribe preventative medication, and offer guidance on parasite control/avoidance. For this reason and many others, it is imperative that pet owners maintain a timely and consistent schedule when it comes to veterinary care for their pets.

By understanding the risks of heartworm infection, recognizing the symptoms, and taking proactive measures for prevention, pet owners can help keep their furry companions safe and healthy. When it comes to heartworms prevention is key, speak to your vet about the best prevention plan for your dog or cat and make heartworm protection a priority year-round. With proper care and attention, you can ensure a long and happy life for your four-legged family members.

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