When they bite, mosquitoes can transmit heartworm infection. And those heartworms can wreak havoc on your dog or cat. These parasites can severely and sometimes fatally damage the heart, lungs, and blood vessels. Some pets may not show any signs of infection; in those that do, symptoms can vary widely.
In dogs, signs of heartworm disease can range from coughing, fatigue, and weight loss to difficulty breathing and a swollen abdomen (caused by fluid accumulation from heart failure). Canine heartworm infection can also lead to a life-threatening complication called “caval syndrome” (a form of liver failure); without prompt surgical intervention, this condition usually causes death.
Although often thought to not be susceptible to heartworm infection, cats can indeed get heartworms. Cats can suffer from a syndrome referred to as heartworm-associated respiratory disease (HARD); the symptoms can be subtle and may mimic those of asthma or allergic bronchitis. Signs of respiratory distress, such as rapid or difficult breathing, wheezing, and panting, are common. Other symptoms include coughing, vomiting (typically unrelated to eating), and loss of appetite or weight. Heartworm infection is more difficult to diagnose in cats than it is in dogs.
Treatment for heartworm infection is a serious matter and is more expensive than prevention alone. The American Heartworm Society gives us strict guidelines on the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of canine heartworm disease. According to the AHS, most dogs infected with heartworm can be successfully treated. The goal of treatment is to kill all adult worms with an adulticide and all microfilariae with a microfilaricide. There is currently one drug approved by the FDA for use in dogs for the elimination of adult heartworms. This drug is an organic arsenical compound. Dogs receiving this drug therapy will typically have had a thorough pretreatment evaluation of its condition and will then be hospitalized during the administration of the drug. It is important to try to accomplish this goal of treatment with a minimum of harmful effects from drugs and a tolerable degree of complications created by the dying heartworms. Heartworm infected dogs showing no signs or mild signs have a high success rate with treatment. Patients with evidence of more severe heartworm disease can be successfully treated, but the possibility of complications and mortality is greater. The presence of severe heartworm disease within a patient in addition to the presence of other life-threatening diseases may prevent treatment for heartworm infection.
Unfortunately, there is no approved treatment for cats. Some cats spontaneously rid themselves of the infection; others might not survive it. And even one or two adult heartworms in a cat can cause serious problems.
Fortunately, there’s an easy way to keep your dog or cat safe: by administering monthly heartworm preventives. Most heartworm medications also protect your pet against other parasites, such as roundworms, hookworms, whipworms, ear mites, fleas, and ticks. We can recommend the best regimen of prevention for your pet.