Heartworm, a serious and often fatal disease of dogs, cats, and other species of mammals, is preventable. To help raise public awareness with the beginning of the mosquito season, April is being recognized as Heartworm Prevention Month. The American Heartworm Society reports that while most pet owners wouldn't knowingly put their pet at risk of becoming infected with a potentially deadly disease, millions fail to protect their dog or cat from heartworm infection.
Heartworm is a life-threatening canine parasite transmitted by mosquitoes that affects dogs in all 48 of the contiguous states and Hawaii. While research shows that America's dog owners are familiar with the threat caused by heartworm disease, adherence to the proper administration of traditional heartworm preventatives remains a serious problem for dog owners and veterinarians.
A recent survey of 18,000 veterinary clinics nationwide, indicated only 55 percent of U.S. dog-owning households are on a heartworm preventative regimen. Of those dogs who are on a preventative schedule, studies indicate that one in three dog owners missed giving the monthly heartworm prevention dose by more than a month, and 20% of those who missed a monthly dose eventually stopped giving the heartworm preventative altogether, leaving their dog vulnerable to potential infection.
With more dogs and cats testing positive for heartworm infection nationwide, pet owner non-compliance to heartworm prevention creates a serious problem that is putting America's pets at risk.
What is Heartworm Disease?
Canine heartworm disease is a potentially deadly infection, caused by worms (dirofilaria immitis) that may grow to be 14-inch-long adults. These worms live in the right side of the heart and arteries of the lungs. Dogs of any age and breed are susceptible to infection. Heartworm infection can cause potentially serious damage to these arteries, eventually leading to heart failure, and in severe cases, damage other organs such as the liver and kidneys. In extreme cases, a dog can be infected with several hundred heartworms. Cats are also susceptible to the disease, but do not contribute significantly to spreading the infection.
Coinciding with mosquito season, heartworm disease is spread by mosquitoes that become infected with microfilariae while taking a blood meal from an infected dog. The microfilariae mature into the infective larval stage within the mosquito. When the mosquito bites another dog, cat, or susceptible animal, it then passes the larvae into the animal's blood stream through the bite wound, resulting in heartworm infection. It takes a little over six months for the infective larvae to mature into adult worms that can live for five to seven years in the dog.
Heartworm Disease is Preventable
Because heartworm disease is completely preventable, the AHS recommends that pet owners take steps now to talk to their veterinarian about how to best protect their pets from this dangerous disease. According to the AHS, heartworm prevention is safe, easy, and inexpensive compared to treating a dog or cat after heartworms have matured into adults. While treatment for heartworm disease is possible, it is a complicated and expensive process, taking weeks for infected animals to recover; in some instances the disease is fatal, particularly in cats.
There are a variety of options for the prevention of heartworm infection in dogs, including an injectable administered by your veterinarian that provides protection for six months; daily and monthly tablets, as well as chewables and monthly topicals. For cats, there are monthly chewables, and a topical solution. All of these methods are extremely effective, and when administered properly on a timely schedule, heartworm infection can be completely prevented.
Are indoor pets at risk?
It is important to realize that even pets that are exclusively indoor pets, may still be at risk because of mosquitoes that make their way indoors by entering through doorways and windows or landing on clothes or humans entering the home.
Another important fact about heartworm disease, is that it has been found in dogs in all 50 states. The highest infection rates in dogs are observed within 150 miles of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and along the Mississippi River and its major tributaries. However, It does not matter where you live, as mosquitos are found in every state, which makes adhering to a strict schedule of preventative treatments necessary for everyone.
What is the treatment for heartworm disease?
Adult heartworms are killed using a drug called an adulticide that is injected into the muscle. A series of injections is given by the veterinarian. Treatment may be administered on an outpatient basis, but ordinarily hospitalization is recommended. When the dog is finally sent home, exercise should be limited to leash walking for the duration of the treatment period, which can last from one to two months. This will decrease the risk of blocked blood flow through the lungs by dead worms. The expense of treatment is affected by several factors, such as the cost of the drug, the pre-treatment tests and multiple office visits.