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Domestic animals are just as at risk of developing illnesses and infections as humans are, and as a responsible and compassionate owner, it is your job to keep your pet as healthy and safe from disease as possible. The best way to do this is to understand more about the ailments facing your pet, and what you can do to help protect her. One of the most dangerous preventable diseases that can affect dogs and cats is heartworms.
Heartworms are a type of parasitic infection. The worm larvae are transmitted via mosquitos to a new host, where they migrate to the heart and blood vessels of the lungs and mature into adult worms. Although heartworm disease used to be more common in animals living along the east coast of the United States, it is now seen across the country.
A dog can have as many as 250 worms in their body at any one time, and once they reach adulthood, a worm can live between 5 and 7 years. They are thin, white and can grow up to 12 inches in length.
Many owners do not realize that their pet is unwell until the infestation of heartworms has well and truly taken hold. The reason for this is that the early symptoms of heartworms are very subtle and easily overlooked, even by the most vigilant of owners. However, as the number of heartworms in your pet’s body increase, the symptoms become more apparent.
Common indicators of heartworm disease include:
- A soft, dry cough
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Unwillingness to participate in exercise
Often, the damage caused by heartworms has already reached critical levels by the time a diagnosis is made. Therefore, if you have any reason to suspect your dog may have heartworms, you should seek urgent advice from our vet.
The easiest and fastest way to diagnose heartworms is through a standard blood panel. Not only does this allow our vet to check the overall health of your pet, but the panel also checks for the presence of a specific protein that is emitted by adult heartworms. Unfortunately, it takes around 6 months for the heartworm larvae that are transmitted into your pet to mature to full adult size. This means that in many cases, the protein produced by the worms is not present and detectable in a blood test for at least six months after your pet contracts the disease.
There are other methods that can also be used to identify the presence of heartworms, but the blood panel is considered to be the most reliable and the results can be read in just a few hours. This is crucial when you consider that time is extremely important when it comes to treating this potentially fatal disease.
The primary goal of heartworm treatment is to eradicate the heartworm infestation without doing any further harm to your pet. This normally necessitates a multi-faceted approach, which includes:
- antibiotics to treat bacteria produced by the worms
- steroids to combat inflammation caused by the worms
- preventative medication to kill off microfilariae (immature heartworms)
- a long course of intramuscular injections which destroy adult worms
Each intramuscular injection must be followed by an overnight stay under the watchful eye of a qualified and experienced veterinary professional who can monitor your pet to ensure she doesn’t have a reaction to the medication.
While there is a relatively effective treatment for heartworms, we firmly subscribe to the theory that prevention is much better than cure. Fortunately, it is easy and inexpensive to protect your pet from this, as well as many other parasitic infections. There are many varieties to choose from and our vet will be happy to make a recommendation, as well as suggesting a schedule of preventative care. This must be followed strictly as being late with any medications could leave your pet at risk of contracting heartworms or other painful and debilitating conditions.
We at Herschel Animal Clinic are dedicated to providing personalized care to our clients and their human owners. Should you be interested in finding out more about heartworm disease or any other illness that may affect your pet, our team of professionals would be happy to provide the advice that you need. Please do not hesitate to call our Jacksonville vet office with any other questions or to schedule an appointment.