What is Heartworm, and How Can You Prevent It?

Exercise, proper nutrition, annual vet visits – as a responsible pet owner, you know the basics when it comes to maintaining your dog’s overall health. But, when it comes to preventative care, you also need to be thinking about your pet’s heart. More specifically, heartworm. 

If your pet isn’t being consistently checked or treated for heartworm, early detection is your next best defense. To stay proactive and prevent this life-threatening disease from taking over your dog’s body, it’s good to first understand what heartworm is and how it spreads. 

What is Heartworm?

Photo Credit: VCA Hospital

Heartworm disease is caused by – you guessed it – a parasitic worm (known more specifically as Dirofilaria Immitis. These foot-long worms are spread through mosquitos, who bite an infected animal and share the microscopic baby worms, called microfilaria, with another animal. 

Those microfilaria circulate in a dog’s bloodstream, and over the period of 6 months develop into adult heartworms, which can live for up to 7 years in dogs, resulting in severe lung disease, heart failure, other organ damage, and even death.

The Signs of Heartworm

Unfortunately, once a dog begins showing signs of heartworm, it means the disease has likely spread, which is why preventative care is always best since treatment can be painful for your dog, not to mention quite expensive.  

A typical treatment plan for a dog with heartworm includes a series of painful injections, antibiotics, and plenty of rest – but that’s just to kill the adult worms. To take care of the microflora and kill the entire worm life cycle, your dog will receive another drug, and will need to stay in the hospital for observation as it can have risky side effects. 

 Common signs of heartworm include:

  • A Cough – Heartworm parasites can make their way into a dog’s lungs, leading to blockages, not to mention discomfort. As such, a persistent, dry cough can be a leading indicator that your dog has heartworms. 
  • Difficulty Breathing – When heartworms take over your dog’s lungs, blood vessels start to retain fluid, making it difficult for the flow of oxygen to reach your dog’s lungs. This difficulty in breathing results in shallow, more rapid breaths.
  • Lethargy – If your dog’s energy levels have been on the decline, and they lose interest in their walks or playtime and seem easily fatigued, it could be a sign of heartworm disease.
  • Weight Loss – Despite lethargy and losing interest in exercise, dogs with heartworm experience a decrease in appetite, which can lead to weight loss. If your dog has unexpected weight loss and doesn’t want to eat, contact your veterinarian to check for heartworm and rule out any additional causes. 

If you notice any of these signs, it’s best to contact your veterinarian to schedule an appointment as soon as possible so your dog can be assessed and treated before the disease progresses. 

How to Prevent Heartworm

Thankfully, preventing heartworm is a lot easier than treating it. The basic rule from the  American Heartworm Society is to “Think 12,” meaning give your dog 12 months of heartworm prevention treatment and get them tested for heartworm every 12 months.

Heartworm prevention comes in chewable pills, topical treatments, and even injectables. It’s best to talk with your vet about the best option for you and your dog. However, consistency is key here, so be sure to set a reminder on your calendar each month to give your dog their heartworm treatment, and be sure your vet does a heartworm check during your pup’s annual visit to proactively prevent heartworm disease and its detrimental effects. 

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