Vet Blog

7 Facts about Heartworms

April 30, 2019

When you become a pet owner, you are taking on a great deal of responsibility.

One of your biggest priorities will be keeping your animal safe from the many different illnesses and diseases that could pose a threat to her health and wellbeing. One of the parasites that you will need to protect your pet from is heartworms. Although dogs are a natural host for heartworms, they can also affect cats and even ferrets.

Here are 7 of the most important facts that you need to know about heartworms and what an infection of them means for your precious pet.

1. Heartworms pose a risk to animals in all states, including Florida

Until fairly recently, heartworms were believed to be a 'southern' problem. This is because heartworm infections are spread by mosquitos, which of course are prevalent in warmer climates. However, they certainly aren't restricted to these temperatures and there is evidence of mosquitos surviving in much cooler climates all year round. For this reason, heartworm prevention is recommended for all domestic dogs, cats and ferrets in the United States, irrespective of where they live. This is especially true for felines and ferrets as currently, there are no approved treatments for heartworms in these species.

2. Heartworms can cause considerable and irreversible damage to your pet's health

Heartworms may start off as microscopic larvae, but eventually they grow large enough to cause significant health problems for your pet. Heartworms live in the heart, lungs and their blood vessels. Each worm, which can be up to 12 inches long, is capable of reproducing. As the number of heartworms in your pet's body grows, they take up more and more space in these organs and blood vessels, preventing them from functioning properly and compromising oxygenated blood from reaching them. This can put strain on the heart and make it difficult for your pet to breathe properly. Some of the damage caused to your pet's organs is irreversible, meaning that even after she is treated, there may be long-term implications for her health.

3. Heartworm symptoms don't become obvious immediately

One of the biggest misconceptions about heartworms is that you can expect to see signs of an infestation shortly after your pet is bitten by an infected mosquito. Fact is, firstly - you are unlikely to even realize your pet has been bitten by a mosquito. Secondly - the process is much, much slower than that. Once your pet has been bitten it takes around 6 months for the larvae to reach the heart and lungs and start causing problems that trigger noticeable symptoms. Even then, your pet will almost certainly try and mask them as long as possible.

4. The symptoms of heartworms are often overlooked

In the initial stages, heartworm symptoms are fairly subtle and therefore easily overlooked. Nevertheless, it is important for any pet owner to familiarize themselves with the signs that could suggest a heartworm infection, which include but are not limited to:

  • A soft, dry cough
  • Reluctance to exercise
  • Coughing or fainting after exercise
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Lethargy
  • Weight loss / reluctance to eat

5. Heartworms can be prevented

Fortunately, there is no need for your pet to ever suffer from a heartworm infection. There are plenty of different preventatives to choose from in various brands. There are even several options in regards to how you administer them, from chewable tablets and spot-on treatments to an injectable preventative that only needs to be given once every six months. Your vet in Juno Beach, FL will be able to advise you which preventative will offer your pet the best protection.

6. Preventatives must be given on a strict schedule

Just like vaccines or any other type of preventative medication, those given for heartworms must be administered on a strict schedule to avoid any periods where your pet is unprotected. Most preventatives are monthly (with the exception of injections) and must be given on the same day every month without fail. Even being just a day late could put your pet at risk of heartworms.

7. Treatment is expensive and comes with risks

Although it is possible to treat heartworms, prevention is far less risky and inexpensive. It is approximately 15 times more expensive to treat heartworms than to prevent them. When the heartworms die, they release bacteria into your pet's body which could make her even more unwell. For this reason, animals having heartworm treatment must be very closely monitored throughout to ensure that they don't have a serious reaction. Typical heartworm treatment takes place over a number of appointments and requires a plethora of different medications.

If you would like more information about heartworms, or if you would like to schedule an appointment for your furry family member to be assessed by our experienced veterinarians in Juno Beach, FL, please contact us at Juno Beach Animal Hospital at 561-331-6200 today.