A Preventable Problem: Exploring Heartworm Disease

A black lab covered in bugsAlthough it may seem like the topic of parasites and heartworm disease comes up frequently in veterinary medicine, there is good reason. So many preventable diseases and compromises to pet health occur each year because preventive measures were not taken. Adding to this, there are still several misconceptions about how parasites spread illnesses and the exposure or risk factors involved.

Because parasite-borne or vector-borne illnesses are preventable, we think it is worth repeating necessary and accurate information to help empower pet owners. Diseases such as heartworm are serious and sometimes fatal. To help our pets avoid experiencing this disease (and others), we want to provide as much information as possible to champion the simple, effective, and low-cost preventive options.

Heartworm Redux

The imagery of heartworm generally stays emblazoned on the mind: pictures of foot long worms that resemble spaghetti taking up residence in the heart, lungs, and pulmonary arteries. Transmitted through a mosquito bite as microfilariae, these organisms can live undetected in a pet for years before manifesting external symptoms.

Unfortunately, as with any internal pathogen, the earlier the disease is detected, the better the pet’s chance of recovery. Over time, when left untreated, the heartworms damage the internal organs, compromising the respiratory system and the heart.

Symptoms of the disease, while vague, include:

  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss
  • Loss of appetite

Heartworm Disease and Cats

Another important aspect of any discussion about heartworm is whether or not it appears in cats. The short answer: yes. The long answer is more complex.

Dogs are natural hosts for heartworm disease as well as other canids, such as coyotes and foxes. Cats are physiologically poor hosts for heartworm disease because they create natural antibodies against the invading microfilariae. However, and this is the tricky part of the discussion, when these microscopic worms enter the bloodstream and are not destroyed, it takes only a few to create serious health risks in felines. Because their heart and blood vessels are smaller than those in canines, cardiac arrest or respiratory failure can happen more rapidly and with fewer symptoms.

Where the primary health risks of heartworm disease in dogs are associated with blockages in the cardiovascular structure and system, in cats the disease presents as an inflammatory reaction by the immune system.

Because the disease is still relatively rare in cats, research continues to be done to isolate and understand the response to the presence of heartworm, referred to as Heartworm Associated Respiratory Disease or HARD.

Diagnosing and Treating Heartworm

In the case of canine heartworm disease, there are many factors that determine the approach to treatment, including whether the pet is in late-stage heartworm disease. In the case of cats, where there isn’t feline-specific treatment options, simply monitoring the progression of the illness and the state of health is the safest approach.

While the microfilariae can oftentimes be killed through the use of drugs, in late-stage heartworm disease surgery will be the best option. However, even the drugs available for treatment are harsh and the effects on overall health can be difficult to gauge.

This, again, reinforces the necessity and importance of prevention.

At Rocklin Ranch Veterinary Hospital, we focus on prevention centered veterinary medicine, knowing this is the path that leads to the greatest health benefits for your pet. Prevention reduces the financial burden on pet owners and decreases the exposure and risks associated with so many avoidable yet serious health conditions.

This month, we are offering tremendous discounts on heartworm preventives for our pet families. We hope you will take the time to learn more about this deadly disease and how you can protect your beloved pet.

Spring and summer bring plenty of mosquitos and increased risk of heartworm, particularly in our region. Safeguard your pet by taking proactive measures and keeping him or her parasite free year-round.

To learn more or schedule an appointment, please phone our office.