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In the United States, heartworm disease is most common along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts from the Gulf of Mexico to New Jersey and along the Mississippi River and its major tributaries, but it has been reported in dogs in all 50 states.
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Not all cats with heartworm disease show symptoms. Some cats are able to spontaneously rid themselves of heartworms without having any symptoms. However, some infected cats die suddenly from heartworm disease without ever showing signs of being sick. Cats with heartworm disease may have very nonspecific symptoms that mimic many other cat diseases. These nonspecific symptoms include vomiting, decreased activity and appetite, and weight loss. Cats with heartworm disease rarely show signs of heart failure.
There is no FDA-approved drug to treat heartworm disease in cats, although symptoms may be managed with medications. Surgical removal of adult heartworms may be a treatment option if the heartworms can be seen by ultrasound. But surgery is risky, and if the heartworms are not removed intact, there can be potentially serious complications, such as shock and death.
Ferrets can also get heartworms from the bite of an infected mosquito. Ferrets are similar to dogs in their susceptibility to heartworm infections, but their symptoms are more similar to those seen in cats.
People cannot get heartworms from their pets. Heartworms are only transmitted by the bite of an infected mosquito. In rare cases, people can get heartworms after being bitten by an infected mosquito. But because people are not a natural host for heartworms, the larvae usually migrate to the arteries of the heart and lungs and die before they become adult worms.
Ferrets. Heartworm disease in ferrets is caused by the same parasite that causes heartworm infection in dogs and cats. The disease in ferrets is an odd mix of the disease that we see in dogs and cats. Like dogs, ferrets are extremely susceptible to infection and can have larger numbers of worms than cats, but like cats, a low number of worms, perhaps just one, can cause devastating disease due to the small size of the heart. Heartworm disease is often more difficult to diagnose in ferrets and there is no approved treatment. Prevention is imperative for both indoor and outdoor ferrets.
In the early stages of the disease, many dogs show few symptoms or no symptoms at all. The longer the infection persists, the more likely symptoms will develop. Active dogs, dogs heavily infected with heartworms, or those with other health problems often show pronounced clinical signs.
Signs of heartworm disease may include a mild persistent cough, reluctance to exercise, fatigue after moderate activity, decreased appetite, and weight loss. As heartworm disease progresses, pets may develop heart failure and the appearance of a swollen belly due to excess fluid in the abdomen. Dogs with large numbers of heartworms can develop a sudden blockages of blood flow within the heart leading to a life-threatening form of cardiovascular collapse. This is called caval syndrome, and is marked by a sudden onset of labored breathing, pale gums, and dark bloody or coffee-colored urine. Without prompt surgical removal of the heartworm blockage, few dogs survive.
Signs of heartworm disease in cats can be very subtle or very dramatic. Symptoms may include coughing, asthma-like attacks, periodic vomiting, lack of appetite, or weight loss. Occasionally an affected cat may have difficulty walking, experience fainting or seizures, or suffer from fluid accumulation in the abdomen. Unfortunately, the first sign in some cases is sudden collapse of the cat, or sudden death.
Heartworm disease is a serious, progressive disease. The earlier it is detected, the better the chances the pet will recover. There are few, if any, early signs of disease when a dog, cat or ferret is infected with heartworms, so detecting their presence with a heartworm test administered by a veterinarian is important. The test requires just a small blood sample from your pet, and it works by detecting the presence of heartworm proteins. Some veterinarians process heartworm tests right in their hospitals while others send the samples to a diagnostic laboratory. In either case, results are obtained quickly. If your pet tests positive, further tests may be ordered.
Dogs. All dogs should be tested annually for heartworm infection, and this can usually be done during a routine visit for preventive care. Following are guidelines on testing and timing:
Ferrets. Diagnosis of heartworm disease in ferrets can be more problematic. Your veterinarian may recommend both antigen testing and diagnostic imaging such as echocardiography to demonstrate the presence of worm in the heart.
No one wants to hear that their dog has heartworm, but the good news is that most infected dogs can be successfully treated. The goal is to first stabilize your dog if he is showing signs of disease, then kill all adult and immature worms while keeping the side effects of treatment to a minimum.
Yes. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) labeling on heartworm preventives states that the medication is to be used by or on the order of a licensed veterinarian. This means heartworm preventives must be purchased from your veterinarian or with a prescription through a pet pharmacy Prior to prescribing a heartworm preventive, the veterinarian typically performs a heartworm test to make sure your pet doesn't already have adult heartworms, as giving preventives can lead to rare but possibly severe reactions that could be harmful or even fatal. It is not necessary to test very young puppies or kittens prior to starting preventives since it takes approximately 6 months for heartworms to develop to adulthood. If the heartworm testing is negative, prevention medication is prescribed.
Whether the preventive you choose is given as a pill, a spot-on topical medication or as an injection, all approved heartworm medications work by eliminating the immature (larval) stages of the heartworm parasite. This includes the infective heartworm larvae deposited by the mosquito as well as the following larval stage that develops inside the animal. Unfortunately, in as little as 51 days, heartworm larvae can molt into a juvenile/immature adult stage, which cannot be effectively eliminated by preventives. Because heartworms must be eliminated before they reach this adult stage, it is extremely important that heartworm preventives be administered strictly on schedule (monthly for oral and topical products and every 6 months or 12 months for the injectable). Administering prevention late can allow immature larvae to molt into the adult stage, which is poorly prevented.
Yes, a number of heartworm preventives used today also are effective against certain intestinal parasites. Depending on the product, these may include hookworms, roundworms, whipworms and tapeworms. Some products are even effective in treating external parasites such as fleas, ticks, ear mites, and the mite that causes scabies. However, it is important to realize that no single product will eliminate all species of internal and external parasites, and you should consult your veterinarian to determine the best product for your pet.
The risk of puppies and kittens getting heartworm disease is equal to that of adult pets. The American Heartworm Society recommends that puppies and kittens be started on a heartworm preventive as early as the product label allows, and no later than 8 weeks of age. Ferrets are started on a preventive when they weigh at least two pounds.
For a variety of reasons, even in regions of the country where winters are cold, the American Heartworm Society is now recommending a year-round prevention program. Dogs have been diagnosed with heartworms in almost every county in Minnesota, and there are differences in the duration of the mosquito season from the north of the state and the south of the state. Mosquito species are constantly changing and adapting to cold climates and some species successfully overwinter indoors as well. Year-round prevention is the safest, and is recommended. Remember too that many of these products are de-worming your pet for intestinal parasites that can pose serious health risks for humans.
There are different climates in Arizona, including micro-climates such as irrigated fields, backyard ponds, and man-made golf courses, which affect the severity and duration of the mosquito season. We also know that areas can have heartworm infection in wild species such as coyotes, and these infected wild animals can be a source of infection to your dog or cat as well. Despite the fact that heartworm disease may not be diagnosed as often in Arizona as in some other states, it is definitely present. In fact, heartworm disease has been found in nearly every county in the state.
No. At this time, there is not a commercially available vaccine for the prevention of heartworm disease in dogs or cats. However, research scientists are looking at this possibility. Right now, heartworm disease can only be prevented through the regular and appropriate use of preventive medications, which are prescribed by your veterinarian. These medications are available as a once-a-month chewable, a once-a-month topical, and either a once or twice-a-year injection. You should determine the best option for your pet by talking with your veterinarian. Many of the medications have the added benefit of preventing other parasites as well.
Yes, it is recommended in the American Heartworm Society's Guidelines to do so. This should be done under the direct supervision of a veterinarian because dogs with microfilaria (baby worms in the blood that the mosquito picks up when feeding) could possibly have a reaction to the preventive. And while this is an extra-label use of heartworm preventives, it is appropriate under the supervision of a veterinarian. However, it is important that your veterinarian assesses the severity of the disease and chooses the proper preventive accordingly. By starting the prevention program you are ensuring that your dog will not get a new heartworm infection while being treated for the existing heartworm disease. Furthermore, you are helping to keep your dog from being a source of heartworm larvae (microfilaria) for mosquitoes to pick up and eventually infect other dogs. This approach makes the treatment of the existing infection more effective. 041b061a72