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Five Things You Need to Know About Heartworm Disease

Pet Tales
by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.

This seems to be the era of lists. From craigslist to America's Ten Most Wanted, it seems to be a way to simplify life. We don't want extra clutter or ancillary details. In the words of Sergeant Friday, from the popular 1950-60's television series, Dragnet, it's "just the facts ma'am, please, just the facts."

It may true be that in spring 'a young man's fancy turns to love', but a pet owners thoughts must turn to warm weather concerns for their pet's health. On that list, heartworm disease must be found. Therefore, here's another list for pet owners to keep in mind. It's the Five Things You Need to Know About Heartworm Disease list.

1.  Heartworm disease is a serious risk to pet health.

2.  If your pet comes into contact with mosquitoes, there is the possibility of heartworm infection.

3.  Early symptoms are easy to miss.

4.  Untreated, heartworm disease can be fatal.

5.  Heartworm prevention is simple.

Some pet owners do not understand that heartworm can result in serious disease and even death for dogs and cats. Heartworm disease may progress very slowly. Pet owners are often unaware that a heartworm-infected dog can die from respiratory system failure with few, if any, warning signs.

Early symptoms of heartworm infection in dogs may include a cough or exercise intolerance. Routine play or exercise with their owner or even a strenuous walk may exhaust the dog. In more severe cases, dogs may experience weight loss, weakness, a loss of appetite and/or congestive heart failure.

Although not considered to be natural hosts for the heartworm parasite, cats who spend time in the outdoors can be infected. Infected cats usually have fewer heartworms than dogs but are more likely to have unusual migration of heartworm larvae, the immature stage of the parasite. They may be found in other parts of the body. The clinical signs in an infected cat are usually associated with the respiratory system. Coughing, difficulty breathing or asthma-like symptoms may occur. Chronic vomiting, lethargy and loss of appetite also may be early signs of infection in cats.

Treatment for an animal infected with heartworms is possible, but not simple and easy. To get rid of adult worms living within the heart or major blood vessels of the circulatory system is not without risk. That risk is certainly reduced if the problem is detected early, before more serious complications of the infection develop. Fortunately, diagnosis of infection, with the help of a blood test, is easy. A small sample of blood, collected from the patient, is tested to detect antigens produced by an animal in response to the presence of the parasite in their body. The American Heartworm Society, the group of scientists who monitor the disease and formulate guidelines regarding the best prevention and treatment procedures for heartworm disease in pets, recommends annual antigen testing for canine heartworm.

Medications, used monthly, can be given by mouth, or others that can be applied to the skin, are safe and effective in preventing heartworm disease. Be sure that a discussion on how to best protect your pet against heartworms is on the list of topics to talk about with your veterinarian. Barry Burtis is a local companion animal veterinarian. Past Pet Tales can be found at www.baycitiesanimalhospital.ca