Most of us have heard the word, but know very little about it. Heartworm has been diagnosed in all 50 states. However, the majority of cases of heartworm are found in warmer climates, like South Carolina.
Heartworm is a life threatening disease passed by mosquitoes to our pets through a bite. It is diagnosed in cats who never go outside, as well as dogs who go on long walks, or just walk outside in their yard. Heartworm is diagnosed with a simple blood test.
Untreated heartworm gradually causes serious organ damage and eventually death. Heartworms live in the heart, lungs, abdomen, or liver of the host pet. Heartworm is often called “the silent killer.” Pets that have recently been infected show no signs.
The time from infection to being heartworm positive and/or showing symptoms is normally 6 months. Adult heartworms live in the pulmonary artery which connects to the lungs, and spread throughout the body. As the disease progresses, symptoms include: persistent cough, increased tiredness after minimal exercise, decreased interest in activities such as walking and playing, decreased appetite and weight loss.
There is no effective heartworm treatment for cats, and it is much more difficult to diagnose. However, the disease is just as deadly in cats as in dogs. Treatment of heartworm in dogs is expensive and painful.
Heartworm is preventable! Prevention of this life threatening disease in dogs is as simple as taking a pill each month. Cats are treated with drops down the back of the neck.
The veterinarian should test your pet one time per year. If your pet is negative, owners are given a one year supply of anti-heartworm medication. Costs for heartworm preventive medication costs $45-85 per year. The cost is determined by the size of the pet, feline or canine, any rebates available at the time, and individual veterinary charges.
An Unfortunate Case
About 5 years ago my parents adopted a dog who had been diagnosed with heartworm. They fell in love with “Colby Jack,” when they saw his picture on the website. Even after they were told he had heartworm, they decided to adopt him. My parents live in Maryland, where there is very little heartworm.
They knew almost nothing about the disease, and thought he could be cured with “treatment”. After an X-ray at a local veterinary office showed the heartworms, Colby Jack was taken to a specialist in Baltimore, Maryland, for treatment.
Treatment consisted of 2 injections of Immiticide, given 12 hours a part. The medication contains arsenic. The injections are given in the back of the pet, and are very painful. One of the main problems with treating heartworm is the potential that even though the heartworms are killed, they can break off and travel to the lungs.
Pets should be restricted to a crate and have minimal activity for at least 4-6 weeks. Even though Colby Jack got the best care available, the dead worms traveled to his lungs. Even though he lived for another 18 months, Colby Jack never recovered. He was always short of breath, had difficulty with any activity, and required daily medications.
It is very sad to realize that Colby Jack and many other cats and dogs could have been saved by taking a pill once a month or having drops placed on the back of their neck.
Preventing Heartworm In South Carolina
South Carolina has a very high incidence of heartworm. One of the main reasons for this high rate is the fact that we do not have the prolonged cold weather necessary to kill most of the mosquitoes who carry this virus.
Prevention is the only hope we have to limit this disease.
Please talk to your veterinarian about heartworm testing and preventive treatment. Your pet’s life could depend on it!