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Mosquitoes can cause all sorts of problems for humans: malaria, West Nile virus and Zika virus, to name a few. But we tend to forget that they can also cause a major health issue for our pets: heartworm disease. There’s a lot of false and misleading information out there about the condition, and some dog owners may not realize just how serious heartworm disease can be.
“Some pet owners I meet aren’t quite sure what heartworms are. And if their dogs don’t spend large amounts of time outside, they think they don’t need to worry about heartworm preventive. So misinformation is still a concern,” veterinarian Dr. Karen Todd-Jenkinssays.
To help you get a better understanding of the condition and make more informed decisions about your dog’s health, we’re debunking five common misconceptions about heartworm disease.
Heartworms are spread to dogs through the bite of an infected mosquito. So if it’s the middle of winter, or you live in a dry climate with few or any mosquitoes, the logical conclusion might be that if there aren’t any mosquitoes around, dogs can’t get heartworm disease. Although it’s true that areas with a large mosquito population have higher incidences of heartworm disease, this condition has been diagnosed in all 50 states. Plus, it can be hard to predict when mosquito season will start and stop for your region. For this reason, the American Heartworm Society and many veterinarians recommend year-round heartworm prevention for pets. Believe us: Guessing when mosquitoes will and won’t be in your area is not worth the risk.
Heartworm disease is not just some annoying condition that will clear itself up over time — it’s a potentially fatal disease that can cause permanent damage to your canine’s heart, lungs and blood vessels if left untreated. If that doesn’t scare you enough, consider this: Spaghetti-like worms that infiltrate the major blood vessels of the lungs, and occasionally the heart, cause the disease. That’s right, they are literally heart worms. Furthermore, when heartworms die, worm fragments can act as clots, obstructing blood flow, and worms may release bacteria called Wolbachia, which are thought to contribute to an inflammatory response in the body.
Treating heartworm disease isn’t as simple as giving your pet a few pills to clear up the condition.
The treatment consists of a series of drug injections that kills the worms. When the injections are given, your dog may have to stay in the hospital for observation. Additional medication may also be given to kill immature heartworms and address other disease complications.
During treatment — and for several weeks after treatment — your dog will not be able to exercise. Fragments of dead worms can block blood flow through pulmonary vessels, and when exercise increases blood flow to blocked areas, it can lead to complications and possibly death.
Bottom line: Heartworm treatment is not a quick fix.
Pet owners who give their dogs heartworm preventive medication as recommended by their veterinarians deserve big kudos. But, unfortunately, even the best pet owners can miss a dose. That’s just one reason why regular heartworm tests are so critical. All it takes is one bite from an infected mosquito to transmit heartworms.
Some dogs may not show any signs of heartworm infection at all, which is another reason why heartworm disease testing is so important. Some signs to look for include coughing, shortness of breath and becoming easily fatigued with normal physical exercise. If the disease has progressed, the dog may lose weight and have difficulty breathing, have fluid in the abdomen or even die suddenly.
Heartworm disease is preventable. Don’t skip a dose or take the risk of not using preventive medication at all — it’s not worth the pain and suffering. Talk to your veterinarian about the best way to prevent your dog from contracting heartworm disease. You won’t regret it.
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