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Posted on 04-08-2013

It appears that spring has finally sprung here in North Texas. The wildflowers are blooming, the birds are singing, and the rain is pouring. You know what else that means, though. That's right, the bugs are back! As everyone should know by now, Texas is a parasite paradise. Anything that crawls, squirms or swims lives in this great state. Parasites range from fleas and ticks on the skin to hookworms and giardia that live in the gut, to heartworms that live, you guessed it, in the heart. People have written books upon books discussing all of these creepy crawlies, so today I'm going to stick with one of the most important parasites that we see: heartworms.

Heartworm disease is a serious and potentially fatal condition caused by a parasitic worm that lives in the arteries of the lungs and in the right side of the heart. These worms affect dogs, cats, ferrets and many other mammals. Heartworm disease has been seen in all 50 states, but areas endemic for the disease extend all along the Gulf Coast and north up through Virginia. Animals in our area and all throughout the south are constantly exposed to these parasites, even in the winter.

To know how best to help your pets, you need to know where the worm comes from. First, female heartworms release their young, called microfilaria, into the bloodstream of an animal. Then mosquitoes become infected with the microfilaria after taking a blood meal from an infected animal, and 10-14 days later, the microfilaria mature into their infective stage inside the mosquito. When the mosquito bites another susceptible animal, the infective larvae enter through the bite wound. It then takes a little over 6 months for them to mature into adult worms. Microfilaria cannot mature into adult worms without first going through the mosquito.

Adult heartworms can live for 5-7 years in the dog and 2-3 years in the cat. As a species, dogs are very susceptible to infection. According to the American Heartworm Society, virtually 100% of dogs that are exposed to infective larvae will become infected. In cats, the number can range from 61-90% that will become infected if exposed to larvae. Recently infected dogs may show no signs of disease. Heavily infected dogs may show signs such as a mild, persistent cough, reluctance to move or exercise, fatigue after moderate exercise, reduced appetite and weight loss. For both dogs and cats, the clinical signs of heartworm disease may not be recognized in its early stages.

This is why heartworm testing is so important for our pets. We have a simple test that only needs three drops of blood and can be performed in minutes in the clinic. It allows us to catch these infections before overt clinical signs develop. Even though we cannot see signs of disease, every beat of a heart with worms is causing more and more permanent damage. A heart trying to pump blood past a clump of worms has to work extra hard. This leads to thickening of the heart walls and increased blood pressure in the lungs. Eventually these pets will develop heart failure and die if left untreated. There is only one treatment currently available for heartworm disease in dogs, and none in cats. The treatment is long and painful for our pets and requires them to be strictly confined in a crate for several months.

The good news is that heartworm disease is very preventable. Heartworm prevention is safe, easy and inexpensive. There are a variety of options for prevention in both dogs and cats. These include oral tablets, chewables or topicals. All of these methods are extremely effective, and when administered properly on a timely schedule, heartworm infection can be almost completely preventable. All of these medications interrupt heartworm development before adult worms reach the lungs and cause disease. All of these preventatives are by prescription only, so call or come in and we can discuss which will work best for your pet and lifestyle.

Remember that the best way to enjoy the lovely spring weather is outside with your pets. Make sure they are protected so all you have to worry about is not getting sunburned! For more information about heartworm disease you can visit www.heartwormsociety.org or feel free to give us a call if you have any questions about the care of your pets.

Have a wonderful spring everyone!

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