April is National Heartworm Awareness Month

Dr. Larry Mangum

Veterinarian Appalachian Animal Hospital

Conscientious pet owners understand they must be on the lookout for a host of issues that can affect the health and well-being of their pets. One such issue is heartworm disease.

What is heartworm disease?

The American Heartworm Society notes that heartworm disease is caused by foot-long worms that live in the heart, lungs and associated blood vessels of affected pets. Known as heartworms, these worms can cause severe lung disease, heart failure and organ damage. Some instances of heartworm infection may even prove fatal.

How are is heartworms transmitted among pets?

Mosquitoes transmit many diseases, and they even play a role in the transmission of heartworm. The AHS notes that adult female heartworms living in infected dogs, foxes, coyotes, or wolves produce microfilaria, which are microscopic baby worms that circulate in the animals’ bloodstreams.

What are the symptoms of heartworm?

Heartworm symptoms can vary depending on the type of animal that is infected. Dogs infected with heartworm may exhibit few or no symptoms in the early stages of the disease, only gradually exhibiting symptoms as the infection persists. Such symptoms include mild persistent cough, reluctance to exercise, fatigue after moderate activity, decreased appetite, and weight loss. As the disease progresses, dogs infected with the heartworms may develop swollen bellies due to excess fluid in their abdomens. Dogs infected with large numbers of heartworms may develop sudden blockages in their heart, which can lead to cardiovascular collapse, threatening the dog’s life.

Cats may exhibit subtle or dramatic symptoms of heartworm disease. Coughing, asthma-like attacks, periodic vomiting, loss of appetite, and weight loss are some of the more subtle symptoms of heartworms in cats. But some cats may struggle to walk, experience fainting spells or have seizures as a result of heartworms. The AHS notes that the first sign of heartworm disease in cats is sometimes sudden collapse or sudden death.

Can pet owners protect their pets from heartworm?

The AHS recommends that pet owners get their pets tested for heartworm every 12 months. In addition, the AHS advises pet owners to give their pet heartworm preventive 12 months a year