Heartworm in Cats: Signs, Prevention, Treatment
While heartworm is more common in dogs than cats, cat owners should still be vigilant about this parasite. It’s often mistaken for other ailments, so knowing what to be aware of can get your cat much needed treatment before she gets sick. Here’s what you need to know about heartworm in cats, the signs and symptoms, and what you should do if you believe your cat has heartworms.
What Are Heartworms?
Heartworms, also known as dirofilaria immitis, are parasites. When an animal is affected, heartworms tend to make their home in the heart and lungs. They can grow to be a foot long. A heartworm’s favorite host is the dog and similar animals like the fox, coyote, and wolf. But they don’t just stick to canines. It is possible for cats to be infected by this parasite as well.
Thankfully, most heartworms don’t make it to adulthood in cats. Felines are more resistant to the parasite, so heartworms have a hard time surviving. If parasites manage to live into adulthood, there will probably only be one to three at a time in the cat’s heart or lungs, compared to a dog, which can host hundreds.
Unfortunately, fewer worms make the issue more difficult to diagnose. More likely causes of health issues in cats get investigated first. That’s a problem because even immature worms can cause severe health issues for infected cats, including heartworm associated respiratory disease (HARD).
What Causes Heartworm Disease in Cats?
Heartworms are transferred from animal to animal through mosquitoes. After feeding on an infected animal, a mosquito carries the larvae in its body, where it develops over a two-week period. When it’s ready, the larvae enters an animal through the bite of the infected mosquito, where it is left to start its six-month cycle to adult heartworm. It’s important to note that heartworms are not contagious and can’t be passed from cat to cat or from dog to cat.
The parasite can be found throughout the United States and is much more common in an area that is home to a lot of mosquitoes. It used to be the case that heartworm wasn’t found in all 50 states, but due to urbanization and irrigation, this is no longer true. If you have seen mosquitoes, your pets can be susceptible to catching the parasite.
What Are the Symptoms of a Heartworm Infection?
In cats, symptoms of heartworm aren’t always obvious. There could be no signs, or there could be several. It depends on the cat as well as the stages and locations of the worms.
Here are some signs of heartworm to be on the lookout for:
- Lack of appetite
- Weight loss
- Difficulty walking
- Fluid in abdomen
- Difficulty breathing
Sadly, in some cases, there will be no signs until a cat collapses or dies from the parasite.
How Can Heartworms in Cats Be Treated?
Your vet can test for heartworm in your cat by taking a blood sample and use a combination of heartworm antibody and antigen tests. If heartworm proteins are found, they will request more tests, such as complete blood counts, X-rays, and ultrasounds.
There is no straightforward treatment for heartworm in cats and no standard cure. The medications used to cure heartworm disease in dogs can be fatal to cats, so should never be used. Instead, veterinarians often take a monitoring approach, with support.
The first step after a heartworm diagnosis is to stabilize your cat. Often, heartworm in a feline clears up on its own with proper care and nursing. Damage can be left behind when they’re gone, so monitoring is important. If worms were found in your cat’s lungs, your vet will most likely suggest regular chest x-rays.
Other treatment options include:
- Prednisolone (medication to reduce inflammation)
- Cardiovascular drugs
- Oxygen therapy
It can take two to three years for the worms to complete their lifespan. Regular checkups and medication can help minimize symptoms during this time period. If heartworms are resolved, your veterinarian will probably recommend that your cat come in for continued checkups. This is to keep an eye on any damage the parasite might have done to her heart or lungs.
Heartworms Can Be Prevented
Since there is no standard cure for heartworms in cats, prevention is absolutely necessary. Even indoor cats can come in contact with mosquitoes.
Monthly heartworm preventive medications are a great way to keep the worms at bay. Even if your cat was previously diagnosed with the parasite, these medications can prevent a new infection. Heartworm preventative care for cats are available in topical and pill forms, which should be given once a month. Injectable medication may also be available through your veterinarian. These need to be administered every six months.
If you give your cat heartworm prevention medication, timing is essential. Missing a dose or administering one late could leave your pet open to infection. Kittens can be started on heartworm preventative as early as eight weeks, though dosage will change with their body weight.
Both indoor and outdoor cats can get heartworm! If you think your cat contracted the parasite or you would like to talk about preventative measures, don’t hesitate to get in contact with us. Give us a call at 281-693-7387, or visit us at 2519 Cinco Park Place in Katy TX.