Everything you need to know about heartworm

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Wherever there are mozzies, there is the risk of heartworm infection in our pets. We’ve seen an increase in heartworm infections in recent years and with periods of increased rainfall, the concern is that we will see further rises.

Understanding heartworm

Heartworm is a parasitic worm transmitted to pets through mosquito bites.

When an infected mosquito bites an animal, it injects larval heartworms under the skin. These larvae migrate through the pet’s organs, taking about five to six months to mature.

Once matured, they settle in the heart and the blood vessels of the lungs. Here, the adult worms breed, releasing microfilaria (baby heartworms) into the bloodstream, which are then picked up by mosquitoes when they bite the infected pet, continuing the cycle. Since mosquitoes are abundant, even indoor pets are at risk.

Recognising heartworm: Dogs

The onset of heartworm disease in dogs is slow, often making it difficult to detect until significant damage has occurred.

Early symptoms include shortness of breath, decreased stamina, and a persistent, dry cough. As the disease progresses, more severe symptoms like difficulty breathing, abdominal swelling due to fluid accumulation, lethargy, weight loss, and a diminished appetite may appear.

In advanced stages, the heart and lungs are under immense strain, which can lead to heart failure. Without treatment, heartworm is nearly always fatal.

Recognising heartworm: Cats

In cats, the signs of heartworm are generally less noticeable. Symptoms may include slight lethargy or a mild cough.

Unfortunately, heartworm can lead to sudden death in cats if left undetected and untreated.

It only takes one or two worms to cause fatal heart disease in felines.

Diagnosing heartworm

To diagnose heartworm, a simple blood test at the vet’s office is essential. However, diagnosis in cats can be more challenging, reinforcing the need for preventive measures. Regular vet check-ups and maintaining an all-round worming treatment schedule are crucial in keeping pets healthy and heartworm-free.

Prevalence of heartworm

Heartworm prevalence is notably high in the Penrith area due to the Nepean River, an ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes. This increases the risk of infection, making prevention a critical strategy for heartworm control.

Treating and preventing heartworm

While heartworm can be treated, prevention is significantly easier and more cost-effective. Various prevention products are available for both dogs and cats, including spot-on’s, tablets, oral chews, and a long-acting injection for dogs.

These products work primarily by killing the larvae before they mature into adult worms. However, some products also target adult worms. It is crucial to perform a heartworm test before starting or resuming preventive treatments, especially if there’s been a lapse in prevention, as some products can cause life-threatening issues if adult heartworms are present.

For comprehensive heartworm prevention and treatment, consulting with a vet is essential.

Kellie Tickner, Orchard Hills Veterinary Hospital

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