Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Understanding Heartworm Disease & How to Treat It

Heartworm disease affects many animals all over the US and around the world. In fact, every state has documented cases of heartworm disease. While it is more typical for dogs to be diagnosed with the disease, it still affects other animals like cats, horses, ferrets and other mammals. So what is it? Heartworm disease is a potentially fatal illness caused by an infestation of parasitic worms (Dirofilaria immitis) in the heart, lungs or blood vessels. These worms, typically spread by mosquito bites, can actually cause heart failure, lung disease and organ damage in adult and baby animals.

In honor of National Heartworm Awareness Month, we would like to highlight how to recognize this disease, treatment options and effective medicines in hopes of saving more animal lives. But how do you know when an animal has heartworms? In cats and dogs, the symptoms are usually very subtle and sparsely show in the early stages of the disease. However, as the disease progresses, you may notice serious clinical signs.

Symptoms of Heartworm Disease:
•    Persistent coughing, labored breathing
•    Fatigue after physical activity
•    Aversion to physical activity
•    Occasional vomiting
•    Decrease appetite
•    Weight loss
•    Swollen stomach
•    Bloody urine

While these are the most common signs of heartworm disease, there are more serious symptoms such as sudden collapse, difficulty walking and seizures. Unfortunately, some animals may not show signs until the disease has progressed to the fatal stage. Death and severe illness can be prevented with persistent, regimented treatment and early detection. The best way to detect if an animal has heartworm is to perform an antigen test. This test, administered by trained veterinarians, is designed to detect the antigens produced by the heartworms and released into the bloodstream. For cats, detection is a bit tricky. Cats will typically have to undergo various tests, such as X-rays, ultrasounds and blood tests. Young puppies should start heartworm treatment as soon as possible, as they are most susceptible to the disease. For adolescent and adult dogs or cats, it’s best to get tested by a veterinarian.

Heartworm treatment varies from animal to animal. For instance, there is no approved drug treatment for heartworms in cats. However, the disease can usually be treated in all animals with the help of a veterinarian. Most treatments involve several steps. For dogs, one of the most effective treatments is adulticide injections. Once an animal is cured and the worms have been eliminated, it is important to implement a plan to prevent heartworms from developing again. This can be as simple as periodically administering heartworm prevention medication like Heartgard and getting annual check-ups.

Heartworm disease is a serious illness that can cause severe discomfort, dysfunction and even death in animals. It is important to know the signs and keep your animals healthy! Make sure to consult your veterinarian if your animal is exhibiting any of the symptoms above and always remember to use preventative measures to thwart this horrible disease.