It can be very heart wrenching to see your pet suffer unnecessarily from Heartworm disease. Heartworms are preventable and can be successfully treated if detected early. Unfortunately, many dogs will show little or no symptoms of infection even after the worms have morphed into their adult stages. Heartworms are spread by mosquitoes, which breed adult worms in the pulmonary artery, the lungs and sometimes the right side of the heart. Pet owners and even vets sometimes assume that heartworm symptoms are just run-of-the-mill coughs or gastric problems, and this can lead to fatality. The longer your dog has heartworm the greater the risk of heart, lung, pulmonary artery, liver, and/or kidney damage is. When heartworms are in their advanced stages, they have to be killed using one of the treatments available today, the most effective of which is melarsomine dihydrochloride, marketed under the brand name Immiticide.
However, killing heartworms can prove to be fatal to your pet. Dead worms can cause a blockage of blood vessels causing organs to fail. Older, sick, or pregnant animals may not be able to bear the treatment and some pets are generally sent home to die without care or put down, as treatment would have killed them anyway. Many heartworms are hosts to a bacterium called Wolbachia pipientis, which is released when the heartworm is killed. This can bring about further complications in your pet. The accepted way to deal with the potential threat of the bacterium is preventative measures, by the use of an antibiotic like Doxycycline.
There are several tell tale signs of heartworms that pet owners should look out for.
- Weight Loss is one of the main symptoms of heartworms in pets. Be observant of the amount of food that your dog consumes daily and take note of any decrease in the pet’s appetite or weight. While weight loss can be a symptom of many other pet ailments, it is also one of the primary symptoms of heartworms, and when detected, immediate action should be taken.
- Take note of your pet’s general outward appearance. Observe if his breathing is labored and any possible protrusion or bulging of ribs, these can also be symptoms of heartworms, as the ribs try to adjust to the enlarged heart and internal organs.
- Coughing and early exhaustion when exercising are also early indications of heartworms.
- Lethargy is another all important sign to watch out for, especially if your pet is usually a ball of energy. If it becomes lethargic, starts sleeping more, slouches a lot, and is disinterested in activities then it would be wise to take the animal for a check-up.
- Vomiting and diarrhea occur in the last stages when the disease has become chronic. If this too is ignored, the pet will eventually begin to experience bloody stool, jaundice, and poor coat condition, in which case, you must rush him to the vet’s as fast as possible.
- Collapse – the final symptom is collapse and this usually means the animal has succumbed to his or her illness. When this happens it may just be too late to save your pet.
While any of these symptoms could be a sign of a different ailment, they should not be ignored and once observed, action should be taken as soon as possible.
While heartworms are most common in dogs, other animals such as cats and ferrets are also at risk. Even humans can be infected by heartworms. It is critical to identify heartworm symptoms in their early stages and seek treatment immediately. Cats in particular suffer much more than dogs when infected by heartworms, although statistically the chances of their being infected are 1 to 5 when compared with dogs. However, there are very few approved treatments in the US for heartworm in cats, and the prognosis is not definitive.
The wisest thing to do is to take preventative measures. There are ivermectin-based and moxidectin injections available for use as prophylactics. If you take your pet for this treatments once or twice a year, and deal with the mosquito problem as well, you should be fairly confident that your pet will stay free of heartworm disease symptoms.