Heartworm In Pets

Dear Liz;

A few weeks ago you were talking about a dog your rescue was helping who had heartworm. Can you please explain what heartworm is?

Signed, Curious in Canton

Dear Curious:

Heartworm is a blood parasite (worm) that lives in the heart of dogs and cats and can be deadly if not treated.

The parasite enters the body via a mosquito bite. The mosquito introduces the filaria into the animal’s blood stream. From there the filaria travel to the heart of the animal and there they start to develop. As the filaria grow, they start to take up more and more space, literally choking off the blood supply through the heart. If left untreated, the heartworm, which actually looks like spaghetti, will kill the pet.

Now, there are tests to see if your pet has been exposed but it is much easier to tell in the dog than it is in the cat. The tests for cats are generally not reliable enough and there is no treatment for heartworm in cats. So, if your cat does contract heartworm, it will most likely die.

There are several stages of heartworm. The lower the stage (1-2), the less likely health risks to the dog will be permanent. The higher the stage (3-4) the more permanent the damage is that occurs to major organs. If caught and treated at the lower stages, the dog should not have any lasting effects and can live a normal, happy life.

Treatment of heartworm consists of injecting medication into the dog and keeping the dog EXTREMELY quiet for the next 6 weeks. It often involves keeping the dog in a crate for the 6 week period, taking it out for bathroom breaks and eating only. Treatment for heartworms can run up to $700.00 or more.

The reason for the extreme quiet is that once the treatment has begun, the heartworms are killed and the body needs to re-absorb them, which usually takes 6 weeks. Any increase in blood-pressure (or activity) to the dog will make the heart have to work harder and the dead heartworms can actually cause a blockage, causing a stroke or death in the dog.

So, in the long run, prevention is much less costly than treatment. And prevention is easy with the chewable tablets, etc., that can be given monthly to both dogs and cats. Hope that answers your question!

And Maggie, the dog being treated through the generosity of our Channel 3 viewers, is doing GREAT! I get updates from her owners who say that it’s very tough keeping her quiet but that everyone (including Maggie) is cooperating! I’ll keep everyone posted as Maggie’s treatment continues.

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