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April 1, 2011 > Veterinary & Pet News: Heartworm Disease in pets

Veterinary & Pet News: Heartworm Disease in pets

Spring weather means more time spent outdoors with our pets - from long evening strolls to afternoon picnics in the park. What most of us don't know is that increased outdoor activity can put our pets at increased risk for heartworm disease. Mosquitoes tend to multiply in most climates during warmer months and are the main cause of heartworms in our pets.

Heartworm is a serious and sometimes fatal disease caused by Dirofilaria immitis, a worm that enters the bloodstream of dogs, and less commonly, cats, ferrets, coyotes, and foxes. The worm is transmitted by bites from infected mosquitoes. Once mature, the worms live in the heart of pets and clog the heart and accompanying blood vessels. The worms interfere with proper function of heart valves increasing the workload of the heart and reducing blood supply to vital bodily organs. Heartworms can cause congestive heart failure, damage to the lungs, kidneys, and other vital organs.

Female worms can measure as long as 14 inches and in advanced stages of the disease, a dog can have as many as 300 worms. Although the southeastern states have a much higher prevalence of this terrible disease, no state escapes unaffected. Heartworms have been found in every one of the 50 United States - including Alaska.

Most pets infected with heartworm disease don't show symptoms for as long as two years. Unfortunately, by the time symptoms are detected, significant internal organ damage has occurred and the disease is in advanced stages. Diagnosis is usually made by simple in-house blood tests. If heartworms are detected, your veterinarian will perform additional tests such as urinalysis and radiographs ("x-rays") to determine the extent of damage and stage.

Prevention is relatively easy as long as pet owners administer monthly heartworm preventives year- round. The most common heartworm preventives are Heartgard Plus(tm), Revolution(tm), Interceptor(tm), and Sentinel(tm). Please discuss which products are best for your pet with your veterinarian.

Disconcerting information regarding heartworms surfaced in a compliance study performed by the American Animal Hospital Association. In this study, it was found that less than 50% of pet owners comply with their veterinarian's recommendations to administer monthly heartworm products that can prevent the disease. Either pet owners were purchasing the heartworm preventive and not administering it to their pets or they only did it for only a few months out of the year.

As a result, despite years of testing and treating pets for heartworms, the overall incidence of heartworms has not declined. Some experts blame this on global warming but most blame it on lack of compliance by pet owners. New research also shows that in some regions of the United States, there may be genetic mutation of heartworms creating resistance to select heartworm preventives.

As a result, veterinarians and the pharmaceutical industry have responded by sending monthly email reminders to administer heartworm preventives. Veterinarians recommend purchasing a year's supply of heartworm preventive to increase compliance. Other recommendations include annual testing for heartworms, reducing exposure to mosquitoes, and pet examinations if any abnormal symptoms are noticed. Together - pet owners and veterinarians - we can decrease the prevalence of heartworms and improve the quality of life for our pets.

Dr Raj Salwan is a second generation Veterinarian and has been around Veterinary Medicine for over 23 years. His interests include Internal Medicine, Surgery, Emergency/Acute Care, and general small animal practice. He currently works at American Animal Care in Fremont and can be reached via email at or

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