April is Heartworm Awareness Month, so we’re taking a closer look at how you can protect your pet from this deadly parasite.
The importance of heartworm prevention can’t be overstated. This is a disease that kills, and once it takes a hold of your pet, treatment can be off the table. It’s one disease you absolutely need to nip in the bud before it takes over.
What is heartworm, and how can my dog get it?
We’ve all heard of heartworm disease before—but what exactly is it, and what makes our dogs vulnerable to it?
Not that we need more reasons to detest mosquitos, but they’re actually the culprit behind the spread of heartworm among dogs. Acting as a transitional host, the mosquito provides a place for the worms to live until they become “infective.” At that point, all it takes is one little bite for the mosquito to transfer the parasite to your unlucky pooch.
This is not an immediate process, though. PetMD tells us that after a dog has been bitten, it will take up to seven months for the larvae to mature and take up residence in the dog’s heart and lungs. Once that happens, the worms will reproduce and can cause severe organ damage, heart failure, and even death.
One small silver lining in all of this is that heartworm disease isn’t contagious between dogs. Only the bite of an infected mosquito can spread the disease, so there’s no need to keep dogs separated.
Signs your dog has heartworm
Because it takes such a long time for the worms to reach adulthood, you won’t be able to detect any immediate symptoms after an infection occurs. When symptoms do start to surface, their severity will be determined by the number of worms living inside the dog and how long they’ve been there.
- A persistent cough
Fatigue and weakness
Disinterest in exercise
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- A swollen abdomen (from fluid accumulation)
If the infestation is large enough, a dog can develop something called caval syndrome. This life-threatening condition occurs when the worms grow so numerous that they form a blockade, cutting off the heart’s blood supply. The only remedy is immediate and risky surgery so, unfortunately, caval syndrome is almost always fatal. Signs of this cardiovascular collapse include:
- Difficulty breathing
- Abnormal lung sounds
- Pale gums
- Bloody or dark-colored urine
How to Prevent Heartworm in Your Dog
The key thing to remember here is that heartworm is much easier (and cheaper) to prevent than it is to treat or cure. You know the old adage that tells us “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure?” It applies to heartworm 100%. Fortunately, there are some strategies you can easily set in place to keep your dog from contracting this devastating disease.
1. Reduce the number of mosquitos
While it’s impossible to completely eradicate those pesky insects, you can take certain measures to minimize your dog’s exposure to them. Consider the following tips to keep those mosquitoes in check.
Nix standing water. Mosquitoes love hanging out in boggy spots, so get rid of any standing water in your yard where they’re likely to flourish.
Keep it cool. Since mosquitoes thrive in hot, sticky places, you can discourage them from gathering in your home by keeping things cool and dry.
Use screens. Leaving a screenless window open is like rolling out the welcome mat for the mosquito brigade. Keep those pests out of your home with the proper barrier.
Use bug spray. Insect repellent could be your best bet to keep bugs away. Look for pet-safe varieties to minimize your pup’s chances of getting bit. Other deterrents like citronella candles and bug lights can also be used to keep mosquitoes at bay.
Avoid times of high mosquito activity. We’ve all experienced what it’s like to try enjoying a sultry summer meal al fresco, only to become “dinner” ourselves for a swarm of hungry mosquitoes. While we’re not suggesting you keep Fido indoors indefinitely (that would be a touch overboard), but you can limit outdoor time in the evening when bugs are most active.
2. Give your dog a prescribed preventative
In terms of efficacy, a preventative medication is your best route to avoid heartworm disease. Your vet can prescribe either a topical or a chewable heartworm preventative, which you’ll administer monthly. Some meds even have the added bonus of preventing other parasites from using your dog as a host.
If you need to find a trustworthy veterinarian in your area, check out the list of providers from Grumble Dog.
3. Get your dog tested
The American Heartworm Association has two words for you: “think 12!” This ongoing initiative was developed as a way to combat the incidences of heartworm by prompting pet owners to administer heartworm preventatives 12-times per year and to have their dogs tested for heartworm once every 12 months.
Chances are your vet will recommend a heartworm test before he’ll prescribe preventatives for your dog. For one thing, if your dog is already infected, the preventatives won’t do any good, and immediate action will need to be taken to treat the infection before permanent organ damage occurs.
Other reasons to test yearly include human (and dog) error. It’s possible you could miss a dose at some point. And it’s not implausible that your dog could spit up one of his pills, unbeknownst to you. Since there are no immediate symptoms to watch for, testing is the safest way to ensure your dog stays healthy and parasite-free.
But the process isn’t something you should worry about. According to the AHA, testing is inexpensive and relatively painless. A simple blood sample taken during your dog’s annual well visit is all it takes to ensure he’s in the clear.
Heartworm disease is not something to take lightly. It’s a serious and deadly condition—one that your dog can’t hide from. It’s up to you to keep him safe, and all it takes is a visit to the vet to get him protected with testing and prescribed preventives. Please don’t neglect this simple duty. Your dog is counting on you!