Most pet owners are aware that heartworm disease is a lethal infection in pets and is generally more prevalent in warmer weather. However, few pet owners are aware of exactly what heartworms are, how their pet can get it, and other serious facts that could help them protect their pets better from this disease.

There is also a lot of misinformation on the topic of heartworms. For instance, many pet owners believe that their pet can only get heartworms in the summertime, and therefore they forgo medicating their pet during the winter months, or they assume indoor pets are not at risk for heartworms. Today, we’re going to clarify some of the facts and myths surrounding heartworm disease, so you can help your pet stay protected and healthy.

What is Heartworm Disease?

Heartworm disease is a lethal disease in pets, occurring in the United States and all over the world. This disease gets its name, due to the fact that it is caused by foot-long worms that live in the heart, lungs, and neighboring blood vessels in infected pets. Heartworm disease can cause heart failure, lung infections, and organ damage throughout your pet’s body. Most people associate heartworm disease with dogs. However, many kinds of animals are susceptible to heartworms, including: dogs, cats, ferrets, and other mammals, like coyotes, sea lions, foxes, wolves, and more.

Heartworm Disease in Dogs

Dogs are innate hosts for heartworms. This means that heartworms are able to live inside a dog, grow into adults, then mate and produce offspring. When left untreated, the heartworms can reproduce drastically. Dogs have been known to have hundreds of worms in their bodies at one time. Unfortunately, heartworm disease can continue to cause permanent damage to the heart, lungs, and arteries, and detrimentally affect your pet’s health and quality of life, even after the parasite is gone. With that said, prevention is the best and healthiest option for your pet. If heartworms are detected, treatment should be given as soon as possible.

How Do Dogs Get Heartworms?

Dogs can get heartworms in as little as one bite by an infected mosquito.  There’s no way of telling if a mosquito is infected with heartworms, and heartworm disease occurs in all 50 states. In the past, many veterinarians believed that heartworm disease wasn’t found in certain areas of the United States, like Oregon, California, Arizona, and other areas with drier climates. However, heartworms have quickly spread to all 50 states, due to irrigation and other influences, in which mosquito population are able to grow.

Since one bite by a mosquito with heartworm larvae will give your dog heartworms, it is important to use prophylactic measures to keep your dog from becoming infected. Once a dog is bitten by a mosquito carrying heartworms, it takes around six months for the larvae to become an adult heartworm. Once reaching adulthood, the heartworms lodge into the heart, lungs, and blood vessels, where they can begin to reproduce. Adult heartworms can live for 5-7 years and grow up to a foot in length.

Heartworm Disease in Cats

Heartworm disease in cats is not the same as heartworm disease in dogs. Cats are unusual hosts for heartworms, so most worms in cats cannot survive until their adult form. Cats with adult heartworms usually have about one to three worms. With that said, heartworms in cats often go undiagnosed. However, even immature worms can create significant damage, causing heartworm associated respiratory disease. It’s also important to note that medication used to treat heartworm disease in dogs cannot be used for cats, so prevention is the only way to protect your cats from the negative effects of heartworm disease.

Can People get Heartworms from their Pets?

People cannot get heartworms from their dogs, since heartworm larvae can only be transmitted by mosquitoes. In some rare cases, heartworms have affected people, but they do not finish their life cycles. Instead, the heartworm can move to the lungs, causing round lesions that look like tumors. However, these cases are unusual.

Can Indoor Pets Get Heartworms?

While indoor pets might be at a lower risk of getting heartworms, infected mosquitoes can still get inside your home and cause heartworm disease. Due to the fact that it only takes one bite for your pet to become infected, it is much safer to use heartworm prevention, even if you only take your dog out for short bathroom breaks or you have an indoor only cat.

How Can I Keep My Dog Safe From Heartworms?

There are multiple preventative medicines you can use to keep your dog safe from heartworms. You can opt to use monthly pills, monthly topicals, or six-month injections. A year’s supply of heartworm prevention usually costs between $35-100, which is incredibly cost-effective, considering the damage that heartworms cause for your pet’s health and the cost of treating heartworms, after your pet has become infected.

Does My Pet Need Heartworm Tests if I Give it Preventive Medicine?

Even if your dog is on year-round heartworm prevention, we still recommend annual testing to ensure the prevention is working. While heartworm prevention is incredibly effective, it does not work 100% of the time. Not to mention, many pet owners can be forgetful and miss a dose of monthly medications. In some cases, dogs may spit out medication when their owners are not paying attention, vomit the medicine, or rub away topical medications. For these reasons, it’s safest to administer annual heartworm tests to catch the disease in its earliest stage.

Want to learn more about heartworm prevention and treatments? Call us today to schedule an appointment for an annual checkup and ensure your pet is protected.