If you own a pet, you know that really, you’re that pet’s parent. You’re responsible for making sure they have enough food and water, they’re neither too warm nor too cold, and they have all the love and affection they need. It’s also your job to take care of their health by bringing them in for regular vet checkups and treatment at an animal hospital in Jacksonville and by making sure you understand the diseases that could affect them.

April is National Heartworm Awareness Month. In honor of the month, take a few minutes to get to know heartworm, how your pet might get it, and what you can do to keep them safe and healthy.

What Is Heartworm?

Heartworm is a disease caused by the parasitic worm Dirofilaria immitis. It’s a very serious disease that can be fatal if not treated quickly. When a pet has heartworm, footlong worms grow in their hearts, blood vessels, and lungs. The worms can cause damage to a pet’s organs and can lower their quality of life.

Who Gets Heartworm?

Heartworm can affect dogs and cats as well as other mammals. It’s possible, but very rare, for humans to get heartworm.

Although both dogs and cats can get heartworm, the disease in each type of animal is notably different. Cats are often called “atypical hosts” for heartworm. Although they can be infected with the parasite, the worms often don’t reach the adult stage in a cat’s body. Because of this, it can be more challenging to diagnose the condition in cats.

Heartworm is very different in dogs. Dogs are typical hosts for the disease, meaning that the worms do reach adulthood while living in their organs. Dogs with heartworm often have hundreds of adult worms in their hearts and blood vessels. Worms that reach adulthood while inside a dog host mate with each other (there are male and female worms), producing offspring.

How Do Pets Get Heartworm?

Both dogs and cats can get heartworm after being bitten by an infected mosquito. The mosquitoes that spread heartworm are found all over the US, and heartworm can affect pets all over the country. Although any pet can get heartworm, the majority of cases occur along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. Bringing your pet to an animal hospital will help them get the diagnosis and treatment they need as well as preventative measures to reduce their risk of getting heartworm.

One pet can’t give another pet heartworm directly. If you have two dogs at home or a dog and a cat at home and one of them has heartworm, they won’t spread the disease to their friend by close contact. Instead, the disease depends on mosquitoes for its survival.

Infected mosquitos bite an otherwise healthy animal, leaving behind baby worms, or larvae. The larvae get into the animal’s blood and mature into adult worms over about six months. Once mature, the worms can live in a dog for up to seven years. During that time, they mate with other worms, producing new larvae.

If another mosquito bites an infected dog, it can pick up larvae from the dog’s blood. When the mosquito bites a new animal, whether a dog or a cat, it can spread the disease to the next animal.

What Happens to Pets with Heartworm?

Heartworms can cause serious damage to a dog or cat’s inner organs. In dogs, the worms can clog up the blood vessels and heart, reducing the flow of blood and oxygen to other organs. Often, dogs with heartworm will have extensive kidney or liver damage.

Heartworm can occur in four stages in dogs. The first stage is the mildest and might not cause any symptoms. The second stage causes more noticeable symptoms, such as a cough. Dogs with the third stage of heartworm might become tired very easily, have a pronounced cough, and have difficulty catching their breath. The fourth stage is the most severe and is known as caval syndrome. By this point, the dog’s heart is so full of worms that blood can’t flow through it properly.

The symptoms of heartworm in cats are usually nonspecific. A cat might vomit, cough, or exhibit signs of heartworm associated respiratory disease (HARD), such as trouble breathing and more rapid breathing. Often, the symptoms of HARD are identical to those of feline asthma.

While cats are atypical hosts of heartworm, the disease is just as serious in them as it is in dogs and can be just as damaging. In some cases, cats with heartworm will die suddenly. If your cat is exhibiting any signs that you think could be related to heartworm, or if you noticed mosquitoes near them, bring them to their vet for a checkup.

How Do You Diagnose Heartworm?

Veterinarians use different techniques to diagnose heartworm in dogs and cats. Your dog’s vet will perform a blood test to check for certain proteins in the blood. The proteins are produced by female adult worms and can usually be detected about five months after infection. Some blood tests also look for microfilariae, which are produced after adult worms mate.

Since many worms don’t reach adulthood in cats, blood tests might not provide an accurate diagnosis. If a vet thinks your cat might have heartworm, the vet will likely recommend imaging of the heart to look for signs of worms.

How Can You Treat Heartworm in Pets?

Treatment of heartworm also varies based on the pet. Dogs can be treated with an injected medicine that kills adult worms or with a topical cream to kill microfilariae.

Medication given to dogs to kill adult worms doesn’t work on cats. At the moment, no medicines are available to treat heartworm in cats. Your vet might recommend surgery to remove any adult worms but will let you know of the risks of surgery before going forward.

How to Protect Your Pets from Heartworm

Because treatment can be risky or uncomfortable for your pet and because the effects of heartworm can be so severe, prevention is often the best way to protect your animals from the parasite. This April, take your pet to an affordable animal hospital and ask the vet there about preventative measures you can take to reduce the risk of heartworm in your pet.

Your vet can prescribe oral medications to prevent heartworm in both dogs and cats. There are also topical products that can help to protect your pet from mosquitoes. As an added benefit, many of the products that protect against heartworm also offer protection against other parasites, such as ticks and fleas.

Forever Vets Animal Hospital wants your pet to live a long and healthy life. If you have any questions or concerns about heartworm, or if you’re worried about your pet in any way, contact our small animal hospital in Jacksonville to schedule an appointment today.