What is Heartworm Disease in Dogs?
What is it?
How is it Treated?
Heartworm disease is a serious and potentially life-threatening condition that can affect any dog breed if they are bitten by an infected mosquito.
During a routine visit to the veterinarian, James was informed that it was time for his cherished Golden Retriever, Luna, to undergo her annual heartworm test. Expecting a routine, all-clear result, James was shocked when the veterinarian informed him that Luna had tested positive for heartworm disease, a potentially life-threatening condition caused by parasitic worms. In this blog post, we will explore the intricacies of heartworm disease in dogs.
Heartworms are parasitic worms that affect dogs. Only 20 percent of cats with heartworm infections have microfilaria (worms) in their blood, compared to 80 to 90 percent of infected dog owners. Mosquitoes spread these parasites and usually enter the body through the bite wound. Once inside, the larvae travel to the heart and lungs, where they mature into adult worms.
Dogs become infected when they eat mosquito larvae containing microfilariae, the immature form of the parasite. Infected mosquitoes then pass the worm onto another dog when biting. Because the parasite’s life cycle occurs within the mosquito, prevention involves eliminating breeding areas for mosquitoes.
There are two types of heartworms: adult heartworms and microfilariae. Adult heartworms grow larger than microfilariae. Microfilariae are smaller than 1mm long.
- Adult heartworms are typically brownish-red in color, and Microfilariae appear white or yellowish. Both types of heartworms can infect dogs and cats; however, dogs are more likely to develop heartworm disease.
- Microfilariae are transmitted via mosquito bites. Adult heartworms are transmitted from dog to dog during sexual activity. Microfilariae are immature larval heartworms that can be detected in a dog’s bloodstream. Microfilariae are spread by mosquitoes and can form the first stage of heartworm infection.
Causes of Heartworm Disease in Dogs
Heartworm disease is a parasitic infection caused by heartworms (Dirofilaria immitis) that affects domestic animals such as cats, dogs, ferrets, horses, pigs, rabbits, sheep, and cattle. Canine heartworm disease can be contracted from the bite of an infected mosquito. The life cycle of this parasite begins when a mosquito bites a dog, transferring microscopic heartworm larvae onto the dog’s skin. From there, the larvae develop for about six months until adulthood inside their canine host’s lungs and heart. As they mature, these worms reproduce and release microfilariae, another form of the parasite that infects other animals through new mosquito bites.
Unfortunately, many pet owners don’t realize that mosquitoes cause heartworm disease until their canine companions become symptomatic—treatment becomes much more difficult due to extensive damage to vital organs!
Though there are various preventative measures you can take to reduce your pup’s risk of heartworm disease, such as using medication specifically designed to kill existing parasites or avoiding areas where mosquitoes breed, it is essential to remember that reducing your pet’s exposure to mosquitoes is vital in preventing other vector-borne diseases as well.
What is Dirofilariasis Immitis?
Dirofilariasis immitis is the medical name for heartworm disease in dogs. This parasitic worm is spread by mosquitoes and can manifest itself inside your dog’s lungs and heart. The parasite will live inside the heart, consuming blood and eventually taking over the body if left untreated.
The primary symptom of dirofilariasis immitis is coughing and labored breathing, which is caused by many worms in the lung arteries. Other symptoms may include weight loss, a swollen abdomen often accompanied by a pot belly shape due to fluid build-up caused by cardiac worms, decreased exercise tolerance, and general lethargy or weakness.
Act quickly if you think your dog may be infected—the longer they go without treatment, the worse their prognosis can be. Your veterinarian can diagnose dirofilariasis immitis with simple tests such as an X-ray or physical examination to determine the size and number of parasites in your pet’s system. Treatment should begin immediately once diagnosed, as this disease can be fatal if left untreated.
What is Dirofilaria repens?
Dirofilaria repens is a species of roundworm that can cause heartworm disease in dogs. It’s found worldwide and is the only species to generate natural infection in dogs. Instead, it’s spread by mosquitoes, which pick up the adults from dogs during a blood meal and then transmit the parasites to other dogs through subsequent bites.
Once a dog is infected, the adults colonize the pulmonary arteries of the lungs and eventually make their way into the chambers of the heart. As they settle in these areas, they can impede blood flow, causing coughing and exercise intolerance. Over time, this can also lead to permanent damage or death if not treated aggressively and promptly. To protect your pup against Dirofilaria repens, speak with your vet about getting on a preventative regimen such as monthly heartworm medication or fending off mosquito exposure with an EPA-registered repellent!
Symptoms of Heartworm Disease in Canine
While most infected dogs never develop symptoms, others experience mild to severe illness. In addition, symptoms vary depending on the severity of the infection, and some dogs may also exhibit signs of congestive heart failure.
Dogs infected with heartworms may develop symptoms such as:
- difficulty breathing
- weight loss
If these symptoms occur, your vet will test whether your dog has heartworms. Clinical signs of heartworm disease can vary but may include a persistent cough, exercise intolerance, fatigue after moderate activity, weight loss, or an enlarged abdomen. In more severe cases, dogs may experience seizures, fainting episodes, or difficulty breathing. It’s essential to consult a veterinarian if your dog displays any of these symptoms, as they could also indicate other severe health conditions. Treatment of heartworm infection requires aggressive drugs and close monitoring for potential side effects.
Diagnosis of Heartworm Disease in Dogs
Veterinarians diagnose heartworm disease in dogs through a variety of methods. The most common are physical exams, blood tests, and x-rays.
If your veterinarian suspects your dog might have heartworm disease, they will perform a physical exam and order additional diagnostic testing. The vet will examine your dog’s gums and teeth, examine their eyes, ears, nose, throat, abdomen, and skin, and check for signs of coughing, sneezing, diarrhea, vomiting, lethargy, weight loss, fever, or swollen glands. Approximately 20% of dogs do not test positive even though they have heartworms because of acquired immunity to this stage of the Heartworm. Your vet may also take a sample of your dog’s feces (poop) to test for eggs. If your dog has heartworm disease, the eggs will usually appear in the stool.
An antigen-testing blood test can help determine if your dog has been exposed to heartworm larvae. All dogs should also have a heartworm blood test at around seven months of age and then be retested annually (according to your veterinarian’s recommendations). It looks for the presence of specific antigens that adult female heartworms can only produce. If these antigens are detected, this is confirmation that an infestation has occurred, and a more invasive procedure may be necessary.
X-rays of your dog’s chest will reveal any obstructions like fluid build-ups or the worms living around their heart or lungs. This can help vets plan the best treatment option for your dog, such as surgery or medication prescriptions. Your vet may also use ultrasounds to measure any damages caused by heartworm infestations, such as enlargements around certain heart chambers or random clots that could have developed due to parasite migration throughout the body.
Treatment of Heartworm Disease in Canine
Treatment for heartworms in dogs is done to prevent or manage the disease. Treatment depends on how advanced the disease has progressed. It also considers factors such as your pet’s lifestyle, allergies, and potential side effects due to treatments for the disease.
The two primary treatment options for heartworms in dogs are prevention and elimination. Prevention is done with monthly medications administered orally or topically to reduce the risk of future infections. Eliminating Heartworm involves using a combination of drugs to kill the parasites.
Anthelmintics are medicines that kill adult heartworms. These drugs are given orally or intravenously. Some anthelmintics are effective against multiple species of heartworms. Others are specific to one type of worm. Some common anthelminthic medications used to treat heartworm disease include ivermectin, milbemycin oxime, moxidectin, selamectin, pyrantel embonate, febantel, and imidacloprid.
These drugs are typically given orally once per month, although some veterinarians recommend giving them twice monthly. Some dogs require higher doses of medication to achieve effective treatment.
Heartworm Treatment Steps
Treating heartworm disease in a dog begins with diagnostic testing and assessing the severity of the condition. Then, a physical examination and laboratory tests, such as a complete blood count, enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) to test for antigens from adult worms, x-ray imaging to visualize lung changes, and chest ultrasound to detect worm movement should be performed. According to the American Heartworm Society standards of care, dogs should also be treated with quality broad-spectrum heartworm preventives that contain at least macrocyclic lactones (MLs).
Once the patient is diagnosed with heartworm disease, deworming injections can be administered every two weeks for up to six months to kill the adult worms. These injections are typically ivermectin, moxidectin, or milbemycin oxime. Additionally, supplemental treatments may include antibiotics, exercise restrictions, and anti-inflammatory medications. Heartworm treatment can be difficult and strenuous, so close monitoring of the pet’s health must occur throughout this period through regular vet visits and blood work. Prednisone may also be prescribed as part of the treatment plan in cases with severe signs or extensive damage due to inflammation caused by Larva migration.
After completion of treatment, reexamination after four months is essential. This allows veterinary professionals to confirm that all worms have been eliminated through assessment findings on physical exam patterns and antigen ELISA tests that measure adult-stage infestation density levels compared with their initial readings before r starting any therapy efforts. Reevaluation after one year is also recommended since mortality continues 6-8 months post-treatment completion when unresponsive infections rebound due to delayed medical attention in prolonged exposure circumstances before accurate diagnosis occurs.
How to Prevent Heartworm Disease
You can do several things to prevent your dog from getting heartworms.
- Vaccinate your dog against the canine distemper virus. This vaccine protects your dog from most diseases caused by viruses.
- Protect your dog from mosquitoes. Please ensure your yard has no standing water, and remove weeds and debris near your house.
- Clean your dog’s bedding regularly. Remove old bedding and wash bedding in hot water.
- Avoid feeding raw meat to your dog. Raw meat carries parasites that can infect your dog.
- Make sure your dog only goes outdoors with protection. For example, you can use insect repellent when going outside.
- Use flea and tick prevention products. Fleas and ticks carry heartworm parasites, and preventing these insects from biting your dog helps protect them from contracting heartworms.
- Could you talk to your vet about heartworm prevention? Heartworm prevention medicines are available for dogs.
- Watch for signs of illness. Please contact your veterinarian immediately if your dog develops a cough, fever, or weight loss. Contact your veterinarian immediately
Frequently Asked Questions
Disclaimer: The information provided on this veterinary website is intended for general educational purposes only and should not be considered as a substitute for professional veterinary advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always consult a licensed veterinarian for any concerns or questions regarding the health and well-being of your pet. This website does not claim to cover every possible situation or provide exhaustive knowledge on the subjects presented. The owners and contributors of this website are not responsible for any harm or loss that may result from the use or misuse of the information provided herein.