If you share your home with a dog or cat, chances are you’ve heard of heartworm disease. But do you know what the condition entails and why the veterinary team at Chatham Animal Clinic is adamant about routine prevention? Here are six important facts to help you better understand—and easily avoid—this pesky disease in your pet.

#1: Heartworm has been found in all 50 states

It’s true that heartworm is more prevalent in warm, moist areas of the country where mosquitoes run rampant—think the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, and along the Mississippi River. However, because winds can blow mosquitoes into other regions, and adoptable pets infiltrate to other areas of the country, heartworm disease is now diagnosed throughout the United States. Plus, regions where mosquitoes are uncommon may have microclimates, such as backyard ponds, golf courses, and irrigated fields, that invite these blood-sucking parasites. In Virginia, veterinary hospitals can see from 1 to more than 100 heartworm cases per clinic per year, depending on the region. Of course, traveling with your pet may also increase their chances of exposure, so check the recent incidence maps to see if heartworm disease is a concern at your destination.

#2: Cats can get heartworm disease

It’s true. While uncommon, cats can suffer from this debilitating disease, too. And, since mosquitoes can easily make their way inside your home year-round, indoor cats are not off the hook when it comes to heartworm safety. 

#3: Heartworm disease can go undetected for a long time

When an infected mosquito bites a vulnerable pet, the pest passes microscopic “baby worms” (i.e., microfilariae) into their bloodstream. Over time, these worms grow, feeding from the pet’s blood. Eventually, the worms migrate to the heart and lungs, where they mature into adult worms and reproduce. Typically, clinical signs manifest only at this point in the process, which takes approximately six months, leaving early disease signs almost impossible to detect. As the population of adult worms increases, you may notice clinical disease signs, which include the following:

  • Coughing
  • Exercise intolerance, or your pet beginning to slow down
  • Difficulty breathing or increased respiratory rate
  • Decreased appetite and weight loss

These signs progress over time. Pets with significant worm burdens are at risk for a life-threatening blood vessel blockage. 

#4: Annual heartworm testing ensures timely treatment

Because heartworms take months to mature and cause clinical signs, without routine testing, pets can develop silent infections that can quickly become serious. Therefore, annual testing helps ensure your pet is diagnosed earlier, which offers a more optimal prognosis. If you’ve ever wondered why our veterinarian sends you reminders for this important test every year, now you know! Heartworm testing is simple, requiring only a small blood sample that looks for the presence of heartworm proteins. Want more good news? The test is affordable and available right in our clinic, so you can have your pet’s test results before you leave our office.

#5: Treating heartworm disease is no picnic

Fortunately, if heartworm disease is caught early, treatment is relatively straightforward. That said, treatment can be painful and unpleasant, because your pet must undergo strict exercise restriction, often in the form of cage rest, following a series of injections and oral medications. Severe heartworm infestations may require surgical removal of adult heartworms in addition to various other treatments—a highly undesirable and risky scenario for your pet.

#6: Heartworm disease is 100% preventable

If you’re wondering, “Is there anything good about heartworm disease?” you’re in luck.

Although these parasites can cause debilitating disease, they are completely preventable with a variety of safe, effective products available in many forms, from monthly chewable tablets, to long-lasting injections, to topical liquids, to suit every pet. The American Heartworm Society recommends that pet owners “Think 12,” and give their pet a heartworm preventive 12 months out of the year and test them every 12 months. With this protocol, you can rest assured that your furry friend stays heartworm-free and happy.

At Chatham Animal Clinic, we are dedicated to preventing and treating heartworm disease in your pets. Do you know if your companion’s preventive needs refilling, or whether they are due for testing? Contact us today to find out.