What is heartworm disease?
Heartworm disease is a parasite carried by mosquitoes that can infect dogs. This parasite is widely distributed throughout the United States with the highest concentration of infections in the areas of heaviest mosquito populations. Heartworm disease can be transmitted by more than 60 species of mosquito. This parasite spends part of its life cycle in the mosquito and when a dog is infected the worm gets the opportunity to mature into an adult. Heartworm disease is slow and progressive taking 6-8 months for the worms to mature and make their way to the heart, airways, and their large vessels. The adult heartworms can be 5-10 inches long.
How serious is it?
The main issue with this parasite is it takes up room in the heart and large airways that should be occupied by blood. However, it can take months for enough heartworms to mature to cause any actual symptoms. Symptoms include weight loss, heart murmur, heart failure, exercise intolerance and lethargy. Unfortunately once these signs have developed the dog is at a huge risk for blood clots, collapse, and heart conduction issues. Though heartworm disease is treatable, the earlier it is identified the better the prognosis for the dog.
How do we treat it?
The goal of treatment is to eliminate any complications that have occurred due to infection as well as eliminate the parasite. In dogs with many worms in their system, treatment can be difficult. If a drug were administered to immediately kill all the worms it would likely cause massive clotting in the heart and lungs which could result in death. Therefore, the goal of treatment is to slowly kill the worms so they can be removed from the system at a steady rate all while the dog receives proper supportive care. In very severe cases surgical removal is indicated. The best treatment is regular preventative medication and screening!