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Heartworm disease is a serious and potentially life-threatening condition that can affect dogs and cats. It's caused by parasitic worms that can live in the heart, lungs and related blood vessels, and it's spread by the bite of infected mosquitoes. However, the disease is generally preventable and there are measures you can take to help protect your pet from these dangerous parasites.
So, how do you know when your dog or cat has heartworms? Many pets don't show signs of heartworm infection, which is one reason why heartworm testing is so important. However, depending on the number of worms and the duration and severity of the infection, your pet may exhibit signs of illness.
Dogs with heartworms may have a cough, become lethargic or exercise-intolerant (tiring easily or having difficulty exercising) or have difficulty breathing. They can also develop cardiac problems and retain fluid in their lungs and abdomen due to heart failure. Infected cats may vomit, cough or have difficulty breathing. Cats may also suffer from weight loss or lethargy. Tragically, some cats die suddenly without any previous signs of illness. It's important to talk to your veterinarian if your pet is exhibiting any of these signs.
It's important to have your pet examined on a regular basis, particularly since pets with heartworm disease sometimes don't have any signs of illness. There are no approved treatments for heartworms in cats, but medications can sometimes help improve breathing difficulties and other disease complications. In dogs, heartworm disease is treatable, but if the heart has been severely damaged, some of the damage may not be reversible. Early diagnosis of heartworms makes early intervention possible — and early intervention can mean pets have a greater chance of surviving a heartworm infection. Some veterinarians recommend testing dogs and cats for heartworms once a year. Ask your veterinarian how often your pet should be tested.
The good news about heartworm disease is that there are a variety of preventive options (oral and topical products for dogs and cats and an injectable product for dogs) that are safe and effective. Many are given monthly. Ask your veterinarian what product might be best for your pet.
Heartworms are preventable if you take your pet to the vet regularly and follow her recommendations — make prevention a priority and your furry friend will thank you.
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