Heartworm disease: the preventable killer

Heartworm disease: the preventable killer

Vale Park Animal Hospital strives to keep the pets in our community as healthy as possible, and one of the biggest ways it can do that is by educating and warning pet owners about things they might have heard of before but don’t know much about. One of those often misunderstood things are heartworms. 

What exactly are heartworms? Heartworms are parasites that live in the blood vessels of the heart. They spread to dogs and cats through the bite of a mosquito. For a pet that loves to run around outside and roll around in the dirt, having some worms might not sound all that concerning, but in reality, heartworms can cause many serious problems including hypertension, high blood pressure, and even death when the heart muscles are damaged. 

Here in Northwest Indiana, we’re lucky to have several seasons, so heartworms aren’t as big of a concern as they are in other parts of the country. What people might not know, though, is that mosquitoes and the risk of heartworms are a threat even in some of our colder months. 

“It only takes two 50-degree days in a row for heartworms to start living in an environment. With the mild winters that we've had, we've seen heartworms in January and February. These are times when you would think the weather would be cold enough not to have mosquitoes but there are,” said Dr. Bill Donohue from Vale Park Animal Hospital. 

To keep their furry friends healthy, owners should put their dogs and cats on a monthly heartworm preventative starting at 8 weeks old. Heartgard and Revolution are a couple of the most well-known brands. When their pet is fully grown, owners can then take them to the vet so they can receive a medication called ProHeart which is an injection that can last up to six to 12 months. 

The biggest warning signs that a pet may have heartworms are coughing, extreme tiredness, and an unwillingness to exercise. Some animals may not show symptoms at all, though, and an owner won’t find out their pet has heartworms until it’s already too late. That’s why prevention and regular check-ups are extremely important. 

Luckily, if a pet does get heartworms and they are diagnosed in time, they can be treated. Treatment typically starts with bloodwork and X-rays to make sure the animal is healthy enough for treatment. They are then put on a course of antibiotics for a month to try to start ridding the body of the heartworms. Lastly, the pet has to receive a series of three injections to kill the heartworms completely. 

The pet is given some pain medicine and anti-inflammatories to help with the pain, but it can make them pretty sore and uncomfortable for a while. Owners also have to make sure to restrict their pet’s activity greatly to keep the heartworms from dying too quickly and causing a clot or respiratory distress. 

Ultimately, prevention is always better than treatment. It may seem like a hassle to try to force a puppy to take a pill each month when they’re going through their picky puppy phase or to take a nervous old cat to the vet for a check-up, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry. 

“We just want people to know how preventable this is. It’s better to prevent heartworms with a monthly preventative versus having to treat for the disease which can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars depending on how big the animal is. It’s less costly to prevent heartworms and saves pets from experiencing unnecessary pain,” said Donohue. 

The Vale Park Animal Hospital team encourages all pet owners to keep their beloved pets on a monthly preventative and to not skip a dose – all it takes is one month off the medicine for the animal to be unprotected. If a pet has missed a dose, it’s important to do an initial check for heartworms immediately, and then do another check in six months since it typically takes six months after a missed dose for a positive test to occur. 

The team also encourages new owners who have adopted a pet from a shelter in other parts of the country to get their new friend tested initially and then six months after adopting just to double check they are heartworm-free. There’s no such thing as being too safe, especially when it comes to the pets we love. 

To learn more about Vale Park Animal Hospital and its mission to aid our community’s pets, visit valeparkah.com.