Heartworms are a parasite that can cause severe damage to the heart, lungs, and blood vessels of your pet. If left untreated, heartworm disease can be fatal. Depending on the severity of infection, a dog may live for months, or even years while harboring the deadly heartworms. Even when treated, the damage caused by the heartworms is permanent. When treatment is delayed or neglected the lifespan and quality of life for your pet can greatly decrease. The magnitude of the damage depends upon the number of worms present, and the amount of damage the parasite caused before effective treatment. Dogs with fewer fully developed heartworms and minimal internal damage have the greatest potential of living a normal life after treatment. Dogs with permanent effects from the parasites may need life-long medication. Heartworm disease in dogs is an easily prevented tragedy.
Mosquitoes carrying heartworm larvae bite dogs and introduce the infective larvae under the skin or into the blood vessels. These larvae mature as they make their way to the heart where they grow into adult worms. The presence of the heartworms irritates the blood vessels and the walls of the heart. Depending upon the number of heartworms present, they can obstruct the vessels, causing the heart to pump harder against the increased resistance of blood flow. This will ultimately cause the heart to fail.
Heartworms can also cause damage to the lungs. They have the potential to cause pneumonitis, or inflammation of lung tissue, which interferes with the dog's ability to have a normal exchange of oxygen. As a result of pneumonitis and/or heart failure the dog will begin to cough. A large number of heartworms can potentially obstruct blood flow to the heart, which could cause your dog to collapse and die unless treatment is initiated quickly to alleviate the clog.
The good news is that heartworms are easy to prevent. Prevention consists of using a preventative monthly heartworm medication. This medication kills the larva that would become the deadly adult heartworms. Year-round prevention is strongly recommended in this area due to its mild winters and year-round mosquito population. For added protection, some heartworm medications also offer protections against other types of parasites.
Cats are not a natural host for heartworms, but can become infected just like dogs. The mosquitoes that carry the parasitic larva can also infect cats, but because cats are not an ideal host, many larvae never mature into adult heartworms. Those who do mature however, tend to find their way to the heart and lungs. Since cats rarely show the same symptoms as dogs when infected, diagnosis is difficult because the indicators are not always obvious. Cats who are infected with heartworms can suffer from chronic vomiting, coughing, or asthma-like symptoms. Unfortunately, one of the most common signs of heartworms in cats is sudden death. Even if heartworm infection is diagnosed, there are currently no known treatments that can kill the worms without risking the life of the cat. Without a safe removal method, treatment consists of symptomatic relief of the symptoms that occur. Heartworm prevention before infection is available for cats.