Written by Rose DiLeva VMD, MS, CVCP, CVA. Posted in Ask The Vet.

     How would my dog get heartworm disease?


     Heartworm disease is transmitted via infected mosquitoes. A mosquito bites an infected dog and takes a blood meal. It then takes in the immature form of the parasite. The parasite (Dirofilaria immitis) is incorporated into the mosquitos body and undergoes changes. The next time it bites a dog it passes on the parasite, which finishes it’s life cycle in the dog’s body, ultimately developing into an adult worm. The adult is very thin  and  lodges in the pulmonary artery and top right chamber of the heart (right atrium).

    What animals are infected by heartworm disease?


    Heartworms can infect over thirty species of animals, including cats, dogs, foxes, wolves, coyotes, ferrets, sea lions and humans.  According to the Heartworm Society, the highest infection rates occur in dogs within 150 miles of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and along the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Heartworm disease is present on every continent except Antarctica. Areas with large mosquito populations also have a high rate of infestation.

     How can I tell if my dog has heartworm disease?


      Dogs with heartworm disease can show no signs of disease or some signs of disease. Early infection generally shows nothing at all abnormal. Mild disease usually shows signs of cough. Moderate and severe disease can show cough, exercise intolerance, difficulty breathing, abnormal lung sounds, an enlarged liver, fluid accumulation in the abdomen, abnormal heart sounds and potentially death.
     Heartworms can be detected by a simple blood test in your veterinarian’s office. Additional diagnostics include chest radiographs, blood work and cardiac ultrasound.
     Is there any way to prevent heartworm disease in my dog?


     Yes, once a blood test is done to assure that your pet does not have heartworm disease a number of preventatives are on the market. Most are given orally and some are applied topically. Monthly oral heartworm preventatives include Ivermectin (Heartguard), Milbmycin (Interceptor) and Moxidectin (Proheart). Selamectin (Revolution) is a relatively new compound that is applied topically. Some of these preventatives also kill parasitic worms, ticks, fleas and mites.
     Personally, I recommend that heartworm preventative be given year round in case the occasional mosquito is flying around during the intermittent warmer days of the year. When your pet is due for his/her yearly check-up, make sure they are heartworm tested. In this area I recommend the combination heartworm, lyme disease, erlichiosis, anaplasmosis test since we are in a high incident area for those tick borne diseases as well.
     Treatment for heartworm disease can be very serious since the pet’s body must   absorb the worms after they are killed. The dog must be kept quiet and not exercise for a number of weeks while this occurs. If too much exertion is allowed the worms can dislodge and travel to the lungs and cause death.

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