Aug 30 2013

Heartworm Disease: How to protect your pets

It is not uncommon in my exam room for pet parents to be unconcerned about heartworms. You can’t see them, right? They’re not like the fleas and ticks that you find crawling on your dog or cat. They do not cause the obvious vomiting and diarrhea symptoms that intestinal parasites like hookworms, roundworms, and whipworms do. What’s the big deal?

When a mosquito carrying heartworm larvae bites a dog or cat and transmits the infection, the larvae grow, develop, and migrate in the body over a period of several months to mature worms. Adult heartworms can grow to10-12 inches in length!

According to the Companion Animal Parasite Council (, 1 of 59 dogs has tested positive for heartworms (Dirofilaria immitis) this year in DeKalb County. Unfortunately for these dogs, even though we can rid them of heartworms, they will always have heartworm disease. This is because once the heartworm larvae become juvenile and adult heartworms, they reside in the heart, lungs, and associated blood vessels. More heartworms equal more permanent damage to your pet, and in severe cases death.

The most common symptom of heartworm disease in dogs and cats is coughing. If your dog or cat has a chronic cough or wheeze, seems more tired than usual, and has not been on heartworm prevention, please see your veterinarian immediately for testing.

The good news is that heartworm infection and disease can be prevented. Veterinarians and pet parents have access to monthly preventatives in oral and topical forms as well as injectable heartworm prevention that lasts for six months. In Georgia, we need to be vigilant about continuously protecting our pets from heartworms because our often-warm winters do not kill mosquitoes. Don’t forget your indoor kitties! They are also exposed to mosquitoes when you leave your doors and windows open to enjoy the warm breeze.

Veterinarians require routine heartworm testing before dispensing heartworm prevention in order to choose a safe product for your pet and detect early disease. Many forms of prevention also come with protection from other parasites such as fleas, hookworms, whipworms, and roundworms. Ask your veterinarian which product is right for your family’s lifestyle.

-Dr. Elizabeth Busch, Medical Director

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