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Let’s start with a fact: dogs in all 50 American states face the risk of heartworm infestation. Measuring a few inches long, heartworms (Dirofilaria immitis) are transferred when an infected mosquito bites your pet. Heartworms can be easily transferred from dog to dog via a mosquito, and more so in tropical climates where mosquitoes thrive all year round.
How can you tell if your dog has heartworms?
Dogs with Class I heartworm disease don’t exhibit warning signs of heartworms in the early stages of infection. What you want to watch out for is occasional cough, and then consult your vet. Pets with Class II heartworm disease suffer from frequent cough and exhibit a visible loss of strength and stamina during exercise. The coughs are more perceptible during night-time, and when your pet is in a sitting or resting position. They can be caused by three factors: a bronchial disorder resulting from trapped heartworms in the lungs, fluid accumulating in the lungs due to heart failure, and an enlarged heart pushing down on the dog’s windpipe.
The symptoms of Class III heartworm disease include intolerance to exercise, anemia and frequent bouts of fainting. Other symptoms such as breathing difficulties, rapid heartbeat and high blood pressure may be revealed during a physical examination of your pet.
Dog owners who have observed this condition first-hand say that their pets’ activity levels decreased gradually and they started showing signs of premature aging, such as grays around the forelegs and muzzle. These symptoms are understandably difficult to spot as they occur, but it helps to stay alert.
Prognosis and treatment
Fortunately, the prognosis for heartworms is good for mild and moderate cases. However, Class III heartworm disease may require very potent medication, which may cause lung complications in your pet. The basic tests to diagnose heartworm infestation in dogs include electrocardiogram, urine analysis and serologic tests to look for antibodies in blood.
Once infestation is detected, hospitalization becomes necessary to kill the adult heartworms. After initial treatment, the prescribed medication can be administered at home to get rid of heartworm larvae. More severe cases call for longer stays at the hospital, and may require surgery to extract adult worms from the heart.
How can you prevent heartworm infestation in your pet?
Preventive medication administered once a month is the best way of controlling heartworms. This is especially important if you live in a warm climate and/or your pet spends most of his time outdoors. There are some proven preventive medications that dog owners rely on for effective heartworm management. If you have signed up for a preventive pet healthcare plan, an annual blood test can reveal the presence of heartworms.