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Heartworm Disease, Your Pet, and You By Dr. Weller and Molly Hafer

Part of owning a pet, aside from loving your pup or kitty, and providing them a nurturing home, healthy diet, and stimulating environment, is providing for their physical well-being with semi-annual or annual exams.  At these appointments, your furry friend is given a full health check-up, vaccines are updated, and a heartworm test is performed, with pats and treats included.  But some owners may leave their veterinary office wondering, “what are heartworms, how does my pet get heartworm disease, and why is it important for my pet to be screened yearly and treated monthly to prevent this disease?”  Today we are going to delve into these questions to better understand the causes and reasons for protecting your pet from heartworms.    


The “What” of Heartworms  


Heartworms, or Dirofilaria Immitis, are internal parasites that can infect both dogs, and to a lesser extent, cats (infections in cats are less frequent, typically involving fewer parasites, and are hard to detect).  These parasites are transmitted through larvae (immature worms) via the bite of an infected mosquito.  There are more than seventy species of mosquitoes capable of transmitting heartworms, making pets highly vulnerable to infection. Once the larvae have been transmitted to the host, aka your pet, these larvae mature as they travel through the tissue until eventually finding their new home and residing in the heart and arteries of the lungs of your pup or kitty.  These worms can mature, or grow, to the length of 5-6 inches in male worms and 10-12 inches in female worms.  Once the worms have matured and established occupancy in your pet’s heart and lungs, they will seek to mate and produce microfilaria (early-stage larvae), which will then be dispersed into your pet’s bloodstream.  When a mosquito stops to make a tasty treat of your furry friend, they will become infected with the microfilaria, and go off to re-initiate the life cycle of the Heartworm.


The “How” of Heartworm Disease


Once your pet has been infected with heartworms it will result in a clinical disease as the number of worms increases in the vessels and the heart of your pet.  Initial signs that heartworms are present may include panting, coughing, and a decreased tolerance for exercise.  If the disease is allowed to progress unchecked, it can lead to heart arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat), sudden collapse, and eventually, heart failure.  Retroactive treatment for an active infection involves repeated anti-parasitic injections, lengthy cage/crate rest, extensive cost, and a good deal of discomfort for your pet.


The “Why” of Heartworm Screening and Preventatives


In 2018 alone, there were 2,528 reported cases of canines positive for heartworms in Ohio, with 274 of those cases occurring in Franklin County.  Ohio is no stranger to the mosquito or the larvae it may carry.  At your semi-annual or annual appointment, it is important to screen your pet with a heartworm test to detect possible heartworm infections.  It is also important to administer routine heartworm preventative medication to protect your pet from infected mosquitos.  Due to the moist climates in Ohio, it is recommended to keep your dogs, and occasionally cats (routine prevention should be considered for kitties with a high risk of exposure to mosquitos), on preventatives year-round to keep them safe.  There are a variety of preventative options, from chewable to topical to injectable, that can be used to keep your furry friend safe.  Your veterinary doctors and staff can discuss the options to find the best fit for you and your pet. 


Heartworms mean business and investing in protecting your pet through proper screening and preventatives, is another way of providing the best and most loving care for your pet.  And you know what they say, an ounce of prevention is worth way more than a pound of cure to you and your fur-ever friend. For more information give our experienced team at Clintonville Animal Hospital in Columbus, OH today (614) 263-6730.