Bite Back Against Heartworm Disease
The warm summer temperatures right now are perfect for dogs and owners who love the great outdoors. But it’s not just people and pets that love this time of year – over 160 species of mosquitoes in the USA love it too! And these tiny pests can transmit serious diseases to both you and your pet.
Heartworm disease is just one of the conditions that these insects can spread. It is found in all parts of the country and is transmitted only by mosquitoes. Dirofilaria immitis is the name of the roundworm that is commonly known as heartworm. Adult heartworms live in the dog’s heart and blood vessels of the lungs, and can grow up to 12cm long! They then produce immature forms of the worm that are released into the bloodstream where they may be picked up by a mosquito that bites the dog. They continue to develop in the mosquito, before being transferred to an uninfected dog that it subsequently bites.
Signs Of Heartworm Disease
In the early stages of infection there may be no signs of disease, but later on the most common signs include chronic cough, breathing difficulties, weight loss and reduced appetite. In severe cases, death can result if the condition goes untreated.
Since heartworm disease is a problem across the USA, protection is therefore essential for all dogs. Preventative medications prescribed by your vet are an important way to help control the disease. Before beginning any of these medications, however, your dog will need to have a blood test to check that he does not already have the condition since the treatment could result in severe reactions if given to a dog with heartworm. Similar heartworm checks are also recommended each year as part of your dog’s annual health care regime.
Cats can also become infected with heartworms, and there is a preventative medication available for them too. This is recommended for all cats that go outdoors.
Since the disease is transmitted by mosquito bites, mosquito control is another effective part of the control strategy. Some methods include:
- Keeping pets inside during peak mosquito hours (dawn, dusk, early evening)
- Screens on windows and doors at home, and around outdoor kennels
- Electronic insect killers
- Insect repellent sprays for the home and outdoor environment
- Insect repellents for your pet
- Removing stagnant outdoor water pools to prevent mosquitoes breeding
Although heartworm infection was once considered a problem mostly restricted to southern climates, it is now recognized as a problem of dogs and cats all across the USA. Therefore, preventative measures, including insect control, are imperative but relatively easy to introduce. Prevention is especially important for cats since there is no effective treatment available for feline heart disease, unlike in dogs, where most cases can be effectively treated.Written by Dr. Parry ©July 12, 2011
Dr. Parry is a veterinarian working at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.