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Heartworm Disease and Prevention

Ben Franklin said an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. This could not be more true when it comes to heartworm disease.

Heartworm disease is a serious and potentially fatal disease in pets in the United States and many other parts of the world. It is caused by foot-long worms (heartworms) that live in the heart, lungs and associated blood vessels of affected pets, causing severe lung disease, heart failure and damage to other organs in the body. Heartworm disease affects dogs, cats and ferrets, but heartworms also live in other mammal species, including wolves, coyotes, foxes, sea lions and—in rare instances—humans. Because wild species such as foxes and coyotes live in proximity to many urban areas, they are considered important carriers of the disease.

How does a pet become infected?

Mosquitoes spread heartworm disease, but not all mosquitoes.  A mosquito must first bite an animal that is already infected with the disease.  At that time, the mosquito can spread the disease to other pets- most commonly dogs- although cats can also fall victim to heartworm disease- especially in southern states where mosquitoes can live and feed year-round.

When a mosquito carrying heartworm disease feeds on your pet (bites them), they leave behind microfilaria which enter the pet’s bloodstream.  If your pet is not on heartworm prevention, these microfilaria will grow into adult heartworms.  There’s a great video I’ve found that explains it perfectly.  The video does use some technical and medical terms, but shows how heartworms can attack your pet’s health.

Signs a dog may be infected with heartworm

Early signs of heartworm disease a dog owner might notice include listlessness and weakness, shortness of breath, a quiet, dry cough and what you could interpret as nervousness.  When I examine a dog for heartworm, I listen for abnormal sounds in the heart and lungs.  In severe cases, I often detect stomach and leg swelling, which are signs of congestive heart failure.

If your dog isn’t on a regular schedule of preventative heartworm medication and you notice any of these signs, you need to make an appointment with your veterinarian right away.

Preventing heartworm disease

The best way to prevent heartworm disease is to ensure that your pet receives their prevention on a regular schedule. Whether you give your pet their prevention on the first day of the month, the fifteenth- whatever you choose- stick with it every month on the same day. Put it on your calendar, or on your smartphone with a reminder to give your pets their prevention.

Highland Pet Hospital also offers ProHeart, which is an injectable prevention which lasts for 6 months. If you struggle to remember giving your pet their oral prevention product, ProHeart may be a good option for you and your pet.

It is also a good idea to eliminate areas around your home where mosquitoes can breed.  Standing water is a mosquito breeding ground, so check around your patio or yard to ensure there are no spots where the pests can reproduce.

We have several heartworm prevention products we can recommend for your pet. Some also contain prevention for other types of worms, some are packaged with flea and tick prevention.  Each pet may have different needs based on their lifestyle. Ask your veterinarian which is best for your pet.

If your pet has never been on heartworm prevention, it is important to have a heartworm test performed before starting any prevention product. Giving heartworm prevention to a pet who has heartworms can have severe adverse affects. That’s why we recommend a heartworm test every year to ensure your pet is heartworm free.

It’s always mosquito season in Florida, even in the winter months.  So ensure that your pets are given their heartworm prevention each month.