Most pets will develop a parasite problem at some point during their lifetime. Parasites are creatures that live on or inside another animal, called the host, and depend on it for their survival. Without a host, the parasite will die. Many pet owners are familiar with fleas and ticks, which are two of the most common external parasites, and with many of the different types of intestinal worms, which live inside an animal’s digestive tract. However, there is a particular variety of parasitic worm that is especially dangerous for dogs, and some cats and ferrets – heartworms. Fortunately, it is possible to keep your pet safe from these parasites. Here’s why heartworm prevention is so important for your pet.
Heartworms are the only type of parasitic worm that is transmitted via a mosquito, as opposed to coming into contact with the feces of an infected animal (which is how most cases of intestinal worms are contracted). When a mosquito carrying immature heartworm bites your pet, they are transferred to your pet’s bloodstream where they make their way to the blood vessels serving their heart and lungs. Once here, they mature and grow into adults that are able to produce offspring. Each heartworm can grow up to 12 inches in length and as their numbers grow, they will begin to stop normal blood flow around your pet’s body. The lack of oxygenated blood reaching the organs will begin to cause damage to them. In some cases, the number of heartworms is so great that it stops blood flow altogether, which is nearly always fatal. This is known as caval syndrome.
The symptoms of heartworms
One of the main reasons why heartworm prevention is so important is because of how heartworms are detected. In the early stages of the disease, most animals show few or no symptoms whatsoever. This makes it incredibly hard to detect. Often, by the time symptoms begin to show and an owner seeks veterinary attention for their pet, the damage will have already occurred to their body systems and organs. It can also take around 6 months after infection for any symptoms to occur. This is because, during this time, the heartworms are immature and therefore not causing significant blockages to the blood vessels to trigger symptoms.
When symptoms of heartworms do develop, they typically include the following:
A mild, persistent cough
Reluctance to exercise
Fatigue following moderate activity
If the condition is allowed to persist, your pet may also experience a swollen and distended abdomen, which occurs due to excess fluid accumulating there. If your pet suddenly experiences a total blockage of blood flow (caval syndrome, described above), they may quickly develop labored breathing, pale gums, and dark blood or coffee-colored urine.
What options are available for heartworm prevention?
Fortunately, there are a number of different heartworm preventatives, although these are only available on prescription from your veterinarian. Some preventatives will only protect against heartworms, while some others will also prevent other parasites such as intestinal worms, fleas, and ticks. Your veterinarian will be able to advise you which is most appropriate for your pet.
As with all preventatives, it is essential that you administer doses at the correct time to ensure that your pet remains fully protected all year around. Being just a few days late with a dose could leave your pet at risk of developing a heartworm infestation.
Another reason why preventing heartworms is so important is because the treatment for a heartworm infestation is unpleasant and comes with significant risks for your pet, although most infected canines can be successfully treated. After stabilizing your pet’s condition, treatment then takes place over several steps, all of which require your pet to stay in the care of your veterinarian so that they can be carefully monitored. This is because the heartworms have to be destroyed gradually. Doing so too quickly can be dangerous for your pet. Unsurprisingly, the length and complexity of treatment also make it expensive.
If you’d like to learn more about the importance of heartworm prevention, please get in touch with our knowledgeable and dedicated animal care team.