We have made it to April, my dear Dallas Voice readers! We are finally enjoying better weather, which means many good things. But it also means we will be seeing some dog and cat parasites out there more often. Some of you may know that April is Heartworm Awareness Month. My goal with this specific column is to do that: raise awareness of this important and common parasite.
Heartworm is a parasite that affects dogs and cats, and it is transmitted through the bite of a mosquito that is carrying the microscopic worm. Heartworm disease is not transmitted from dog to dog or cat to cat.
This parasite is only found in the animal’s blood, not in the stools. Once the mosquito carrying this parasite bites a dog or a cat, it takes about six months for the microscopic worm to travel through the bloodstream to the heart. In that time, the heartworm can grow to be up to about a foot long.
When the heartworm baby becomes an adult and reproduces, it starts causing multiple symptoms; one of the most common symptoms is coughing. If heartworm disease becomes severe, it can cause permanent damage to the heart and the arteries around the heart, and it can even lead to life-threatening complications if left untreated.
Heartworm disease is far more common with dogs than with cats.
Heartworm infections can be higher in some regions of the country than in others. Here in the South, since we never see a long, deep freeze, heartworm infection can be found pretty much year round. Some people think that there is no way for strictly indoor dogs and cats to catch this parasite, but mosquitoes do not need to ask for permission to come inside our homes, right?
Heartworm disease is a very common disease in Texas. In fact, according to a 2019 survey by the American Heartworm Society, Texas is one of the top 10 states with the highest heartworm incidence. If you look up poor babies through shelters and rescue groups that are not ready for adoption yet, you will find out that a common reason for that is because they are heartworm-positive.
There is a very simple blood test that can be performed by your veterinarian to find out if your fur baby has heartworm disease; it usually takes only about 10 minutes for results to be available.
Thankfully, this disease is easily prevented. We have options of oral, topical and injectable forms of preventative medications. All of these options have pros and cons, of course, so based on a conversation with your veterinarian, you can find out which product may work best for your baby and for you.
It is extremely important that prevention is used year round here in Texas. Unlike some products for flea and tick prevention, heartworm prevention can only be obtained through your veterinarian or with approval of your veterinarian. Since most medications are not 100 percent effective with every patient, it is important to have annual follow-up exams which include a physical exam and a heartworm blood test. We also recommend using a prevention product that repels mosquitoes, creating another barrier against heartworm disease.
If, after testing, you find out that your dog is positive for heartworms, your vet will recommend several different tests that include complete blood work and chest radiographs.
The good news is that there is a treatment for it. It does take some time for that treatment to be completed, but you can visit the American Heartworm Society’s website (HeartwormSociety.org) for more details and an outline of what the treatment entails.
You may hear or read about a “slow kill” treatment, but this is not recommended, as it can take years before the heartworm disease is controlled, and not only is this treatment not guaranteed, it also gives more time for the parasites to cause further permanent damage.
Sadly, there is no treatment for heartworm disease with cats, which makes prevention even more important.
If you have never heard of heartworm disease before now, or if you have questions, it is vital that you have a good conversation with your veterinarian. I think it is important to assess your lifestyle and any concerns you may have to find the best approach for heartworm prevention for your fur baby.
Help us spread the word about this important parasite, and, hopefully we can do our best to reduce the high rate of infections that we see in Texas.
As always, thank you for taking your time with me and abrazos para todos!
Dr. Josh owns Isla Veterinary BoutiqueHospital at 14380 Marsh Lane, Ste. 110 in Addison (next to Tom Thumb). Call him at 972-738-1111 or visit IslaVet.com.