Heartworm in Dogs: Signs & Symptoms, Prevention, and Treatment
Hearing the diagnosis of “heartworms” can be scary for a dog owner. It’s important to be educated on the disease, the signs and symptoms, treatment options, and understand how to prevent heartworms in your pup. Find out what heartworms are and how you can keep your dog safe!
If you believe your dog may be suffering from heartworms, make an appointment to see a veterinarian right away. Testing and preventative medication can help ensure the parasites don’t take hold. To schedule testing for your dog, call Cinco Ranch Veterinary Hospital in Katy, TX at 281-693-7387.
What Are Heartworms?
Heartworms are a very serious parasite for many animals. They’re found often in dogs and similar animals like wolves, coyotes, and foxes. The parasites are worms that can reach up to a foot long and generally live in the animal’s heart, hence the name. They can also be found in the lungs and blood vessels.
After only a year of being infected, dogs can have between 15 (the average) and hundreds of these parasites living in their body. Over time, they cause damage to the organs they call home. If left untreated, heartworms can continue to grow over seven years. They constantly produce offspring during that time.
If heartworms aren’t discovered and treated, they can lead to heart failure and death in dogs.
What Causes Heartworms in Dogs?
Heartworm is not contagious from dog to dog. The parasite is carried by mosquitoes. After biting an animal infected with heartworm, mosquitoes carry the blood and baby worms to the next animal they bite. Over the next six months, the worms will mature inside the animal.
The heartworm parasite can be found in all 50 states in the U.S. Previously, where mosquitoes were scarce, they weren’t a problem for dog owners, but because of variations in climate and other human developments, heartworm can now be found everywhere in the United States, including Texas.
It’s rare for humans to contract heartworms from mosquitoes, as it usually can’t complete its life cycle, but it does happen from time to time.
What Are the Symptoms of Heartworm?
When a dog first contracts heartworm, there will be very few, if any, symptoms. As the worms mature over time, signs of heartworm disease will become more apparent. The symptoms tend to be more obvious in more active dogs, so heartworm isn’t always clear in lazier pups.
If you notice any of these warning signs, it’s time to schedule an appointment with a veterinarian:
- Persistent cough
- Difficulty breathing
- Fatigue (especially after exercise)
- Decreased or loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Reluctance to exercise
- Swollen belly
If a dog is infected with large numbers of worms, more serious symptoms may develop, including:
- Labored breathing
- Bloody or dark urine
- Pale gums
- Heart failure
These signs are indicative of caval syndrome, which is caused by heartworms blocking blood flow. If you notice any of these symptoms in your dog, it’s important to get her to a veterinarian right away, as surgery must be done quickly.
How Can Heartworms Be Treated?
The first step to uncovering heartworms is a simple blood test. Your dog should have a heartworm test annually to ensure she hasn’t contracted the parasite. It can be done during a routine visit with your veterinarian. Even if your dog is on heartworm preventative medication, this important test shouldn’t be skipped.
If your dog tests positive for heartworms, they are treatable. Your veterinarian will first perform additional tests to confirm she indeed has heartworms. These tests include ultrasounds, radiographs, and others.
If heartworms are present, you should limit your pup’s exercise routine, as activity can cause damage to the infected organs. Your veterinarian then may suggest various treatment options for your dog’s heartworm. Immiticide is the drug often recommended to kill the worms, as long as they’re not extremely serious. Antibiotics, steroids, and other medication may also be given along with immiticide. In more severe cases, surgery to remove the worms may be necessary.
Can Heartworm in Dogs Be Prevented?
Heartworm disease in dogs can absolutely be prevented, and steps should be taken to restrict your pet’s chances of contracting the parasite. Yearly testing and preventative medications are two musts to keep your dog safe. The name of the preventative heartworm medicine is chemoprophylaxis. It also fights against:
Chemoprophylaxis comes in chewable, topical, and injectable forms.
Heartworm preventatives should always be given to your dog on time, every time. A missed or late dose—even by a couple of days—can leave your dog open to heartworm infection. Some are monthly heartworm preventives, while others are every six months. Speak with your veterinarian to come up with a schedule that will ensure your dog is protected year-round.
Heartworms are an extremely serious parasite for dogs, and prevention is important in the fight against them. Talk to your veterinarian about prevention techniques, and if you suspect your dog may have heartworms, bring her in for an appointment for testing as soon as possible.
Cinco Ranch Vet can help. Give us a call at 281-693-7387 to schedule an appointment, arrange for testing and treatment of heartworm disease, or discuss preventative options.