With over 100,000 dogs being diagnosed annually, heartworm disease is the most leading cause of heart failure in dogs in the United States. Not only does the disease manifest in heart complications but it can also cause other organ damage which soon leads to death.
If left untreated heartworm disease can have fatal lifelong effects on the dog’s health. Fortunately, the disease is treatable if diagnosed in time. In this article, I’ll be providing a thorough review of heartworm disease in dogs, ways to prevent it along with tips to take care of your dog if it gets infected.
What is Heartworm Disease?
Heartworm disease is a serious life-threatening disease of pets in most of the United States and around the world. The disease is caused by a blood borne parasite, scientifically called the “Dirofilaria immitis”.
Heartworms reside in the body of the dog where they give birth to larvae. The larvae grow and mature for 6-7 months. Meanwhile, adult heartworms travel from the heart to lungs and finally to the blood vessels where they live. After that, they attack the heart and blood vessels, eventually blocking the blood vessels and preventing the blood flow to the lungs.
The Symptoms Of Heartworm Disease
For the first few weeks or even months, your dog might not even show symptoms of the infection. If your pet is extremely active though, then you might see early signs like your dog not being as active as it used to be, reluctant to exercise or rapid fatigue after minimal movement.
Other Symptoms that you may see include:
- Persistent dry cough
- Difficulty in breathing
- Fatigue after minimal activity
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss or weight gain (abdominal)
Long Term Effects of the Disease
With time, the number of heartworms in the dog’s body can go up to a few hundreds and will not only severely damage the heart but will have lasting effects on the lungs (heartworm associated respiratory disease) as well as the arteries which can lead to a poor quality of life.
It can also lead to caval syndrome. An illness characterized by blockage of arteries due to heartworm accumulation, which stops the blood from traveling to the heart. The accumulation can be removed by surgery but unfortunately most dogs that undergo this procedure fail to survive. This may also lead Severe damage to the organs and can be extremely fatal.
Can Heartworms Spread from One Dog to another?
Many at times have the impression that heartworm disease is contagious and is spread via infected dogs but that is incorrect. In fact, like malaria, the heartworm parasite is only spread through mosquitoes. Thus, climate changes like more rain and humidity can encourage the growth of mosquitoes and contribute to the dispersion of heartworm infection.
Heartworms can only be spread through infected mosquito bites. The cycle goes something like this:-
- The mosquito bites a dog that has already been infected with Dirofilaria immitis and takes up immature heartworms
- In about ten to fourteen days (which is the infective stage) these infected mosquitoes bite other dogs and inject the heartworms in their bloodstream therefore spreading the parasite.
Fun Fact: As gross as it sounds, heartworms are humongous. Male worms can grow as big as six inches while adult female heartworms can grow up to one foot. Female worms are much bigger than male worms!
How Long Can A Dog Live With Heartworms?
According to studies, heartworms can live inside dogs for a maximum of six years if left untreated. It depends solely on dogs’ initial health and how much heartworms can affect them physically. If undiagnosed and untreated most of the dogs can only live up to two years after the infection.
Having said that, It’s always best to look for early signs and symptoms whether your pet has the disease or not. Regular checkups are key for early diagnosis of heartworm disease and this is especially crucial for dogs who live in warmer areas where heartworm infection is common.
Does The Disease Affect The Life Expectancy Of Dogs?
Whether the disease shortens the life of a dog or not depends on a few factors like
- how severe the infection is
- the overall health of the dog
- Age of the dog
- Whether it’s receiving treatment or not
Late treatment or severe infection may reduce the life expectancy of an infected dog by about six years if not more. On the other hand, early treatment can lead to positive results and may not affect the life expectancy of your pooch at all.
Why is Quick Diagnosis of heartworms important?
The indication of the infection mostly depends on the number of parasites living inside the body. Since heartworms can live up to 6-7 years it can take years to show any signs of infection hence why these parasites are also referred to as “silent” killers.
This period can be fatal for the dog as the infection might have fatally progressed and may lead to sudden heart failure. Hence quick and rapid diagnosis is key to increase the chances of survival of your fur baby.
How Is Heartworm Infection Diagnosed?
If you notice your dog has the above-mentioned symptoms, rush it to the veterinarian immediately. The veterinarian will follow up by running a blood test on your dog. To do this, a small sample of blood will be taken from the dog and tested for heartworm proteins.
If the blood test is positive, the veterinarian might carry out a few more tests to confirm the disease (in case it is a false positive test) and to rule out other disorders. X rays and a heart ultrasound might be carried out too. If your dog tests positive for heartworms, treatment will begin immediately.
What is the Treatment Of Heartworm Disease?
Vets can treat heartworm disease by a drug named “melarsomine’, which is injected in the dogs body and targets adult worms. Your vet will give these injections over a span of weeks or days depending on the dog’s overall health and the chosen heartworm preventive program. In addition to this, your dog may also receive antibiotics to treat any kind of infection caused by bacteria residing in the heartworms.
In addition to antibiotics and melarsomine, the dog will also receive another drug to eradicate the infective larvae (called microfilariae) to ensure complete wipe out of the infection. After the main treatment, the dog will be put on preventative medications to prevent future infections.
The heartworm treatment must also be followed by a period of rest for the dog. It’s highly advised for the dog to remain calm and well rested for a few weeks or even months after the treatment. This is because the drug used targets killing the adult worms which may lead to an accumulation of their bodies in the vessels that lead to the heart.
This causes a diminished passage of blood to the heart and excess activity requires increased blood flow which the dog’s body cannot facilitate. Thus, during this period make sure your pet remains at rest until the dead heartworms are ultimately reabsorbed in the body.
How to Care For Your Pet Post Heartworm disease Treatment
- First things first, rest is the key to recovery. It’s best to limit your pup to minimal activity and confine them to a single room. If your dog is overly active your vet may prescribe certain sedatives to keep your dog well rested.
- It’s crucial for your dog to go on preventive medications post treatment to avoid future deadly infections so take care to give these meds on time.
- Regular visits to the vet and blood tests are necessary. Do not miss out on appointments.
- Consider investing in a nice comfortable bed for your furry friend in order for him/her to be well rested.
- Provide your dog with a nutritious meal full of proteins and healthy fat in order for your dog to boost their recovery.
- About six months after treatment, you’re advised to carry out more blood tests on your pup to ensure all the gross looking worms are wiped out.
How Can I Prevent My Dog From Getting Heartworms?
No matter where you live and how prevalent the heartworm infection is in your area, always take your dog for regular checkups to the veterinarian. It’s always better to diagnose the infection early on in life than to only find out in the severe fatal stages of the infection.
Heartworm prevention medications are easily available and can be used to prevent your furry little friend from future fatal and painful heartworm infections. The heartworm preventives will be given lifelong. It will also save you a lot of money since treatment plans can cost up to $1000 but preventive drugs being less cheap will save you a fortune.
The Bottom Line:
Canine heartworm disease is dangerous and can kill your dog silently. As treatment can be costly and may cause risks and side effects, it’s always best for your pet to be diagnosed as early as possible.
This will not only save your pup from a lot of pain but will also increase the chances of survival. It’s also advised to spread awareness among your communities about heartworm disease so fewer dogs suffer from this dreadful disease in the future.