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Everything you wanted to know about heartworm but were afraid to ask

May 31st, 2015 Posted in Uncategorized

What is heartworm? It is a worm that lives in your dog’s heart and in the pulmonary arteries, blood vessels that supply blood to your dog’s lungs. These worms are 30 to 45 centimetres long; that’s a big worm! Knowing this, it’s easy to see how the parasite can cause disease in infected dogs. I wouldn’t want a worm that size, or any size for that matter, in my heart. Nor in my dog Ernie’s heart.

Why does my dog need to be tested before it goes on preventative medication?
We test first because: 1/ If your dog has Heartworm and you start preventative medication, a severe allergic reaction might occur. 2/ Preventative medication won’t work if your dog already has adult worms in its heart. 3/ Early detection is important in surviving this disease.

I consider the American Heartworm Society to be the “experts” about Heartworm Disease. Read here what they have to say.

If you need more convincing, read this blog by Dr. Scott Weese at the University of Guelph.

How is it transmitted?
Many pet owners mistakenly think their dog is not at risk for Heartworm Disease because it is never around other dogs. This is not the case! You see, the parasite is spread by mosquitoes and all it takes is one bite. Even if your dog does not spend much time outdoors, it is still at risk.

Most dogs I know go outdoors to go to the bathroom, and of course they get bitten by mosquitoes while they’re in the yard. Yes, dogs that spend a lot of time outdoors or on walks in the woods are at higher risk, but please don’t tell me your dog can never be bitten by a mosquito! Even if your dog is litter trained and never steps outdoors (really?), mosquitoes can get into your house and expose your dog there, too.

In our part of the world, heartworm season usually runs from late May until late October.

What are the signs of infection? There may be no signs, until the damage to the heart is more advanced. Symptomatic dogs may cough, experience shortness of breath during exercise, poor appetite or weight loss.

How is it diagnosed?
A simple blood test is all that is needed. Many veterinarians combine testing for heartworm disease with Wellness Testing, where they also screen for organ diseases, diseases involving the blood cells, and certain types of cancer. Early detection of any disease means the chance of survival is much better.

With canine heartworm, the test is positive only if there are adult worms in the heart. If the heartworm is less than six months old, the test may be negative. That is why we test dogs that have never been on heartworm preventive in the spring. We can test dogs that have been on yearly heartworm preventive at any time, if their owners have been compliant and have not forgotten to give any doses.

How is it treated?
Heartworm disease in dogs is treated with an arsenic compound. It is expensive and risky. About 30 per cent of infected dogs can die from the treatment. That is why it is far better to prevent this disease than to wait until a dog is infected and then deal with it. Please don’t take this chance with your dog’s health.

How is it prevented?
Prevention is relatively inexpensive and easy. Your veterinarian can prescribe pills or a spot-on formulation for you to give to your dog once a month. The preventatives even come with nice stickers for you to put on your calendar as a helpful reminder. Some dog owners are opting to give heartworm medication year-round, since it also protects against intestinal parasites that can be transmitted to humans. Ask your veterinarian for more information on how you can protect your dog from parasites including canine heartworm.

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