Every pet owner understands the importance heartworm prevention. But what exactly are heartworms and why are they so dangerous? Here is all you need to know about these nasty little critters.
What are they?
The heartworm is a parasite that can live in the lung, arteries and heart chambers of your pet. The parasite feeds on blood in the body and can grow to about 30 centimetres long. And they don’t live alone. As many as 200 or more heartworms can live inside one pet. The heartworm reproduces and its progeny, called microfilariae, end up in the infected pet’s blood.
How are they spread?
Mosquitos spread these little nasties. If a mozzie bites an infected pet the mozzie ingests the microfilariae. If that mozzie then bites a healthy pet, that pet can become infected. The microfilariae develop for a few days before then moving through the pet and ending up in the heart and lungs. Here they can grow and reproduce. About six months later the adult female heartworm releases more microfilariae into the blood. If a mozzie comes along and bites that pet, the cycle continues and more pets can be infected.
Why are heartworms so dangerous?
Heartworm disease can affect the heart, liver and kidneys, but it’s the lungs that are most vulnerable to these nasties. A pet who is infected with these worms can experience clots, bleeding through the walls of vessels and inflammation of the tissue around the lung. This can all lead to damage of the organ. The seriousness of the disease depends on how the pet’s immune system copes with these nasties, as well as the amount of damage done.
What are the symptoms of heartworm disease?
If your pet is infected, signs include a persistent yet dry cough, a dry coat, weight loss, lethargy and weakness. More advanced symptoms include heart failure and damage to internal organs, difficulty breathing, a bloated abdomen and collapse. A blood test at your vet will reveal if your pet has heartworm disease.
How do owners stop it?
While heartworm is more common in dogs, cats are still vulnerable. But the good news is there are many preventative treatments available for all pets. Monthly treatments, such as chewable tablets, are also available, and these often prevent other worms and fleas too. But your vet will probably recommend a once-a-year injection because it is convenient and eliminates the risk that you’ll forget to give your pet his monthly dose. It’s recommended that pups be given heartworm prevention at about three months of age.