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What Are Heartworms?

on March 17, 2010
Posted in Cats

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What Is Heartworm?

Heartworm is a serious disease spread to your pet through a mosquito bite. It is a parasite, a worm that matures into an adult in the heart, lungs, and associated blood vessels of its infected animal host. This kind of parasite can cause all kinds of health problems, from severe lung disease, heart failure, organ damage, and death in pets.

Adult heartworms look like strands of cooked spaghetti, with males reaching about 4 to 6 inches in length and females reaching about 10 to 12 inches in length – though in cats they can be shorter. The number of worms living inside an infected pet is called the worm burden – in dogs this can average 15, and in cats one to three.

Heartworms live for years, averaging 5 – 7 years in dogs and 2 – 3 years in cats. While in both animals these worms can cause serious damage, they are more serious in dogs, as cats have antigens to fight the parasite, while dogs do not.

How Do Pets Get Heartworm?

A pet needs to be infected through a mosquito bite, by a mosquito who is carrying the parasite. It picks the parasite up from biting an already infected pet.

For 10 – 14 days, the parasite becomes infective inside the mosquito, who then passes it along to a pet.

Once bitten, your pet incubates the parasite for 6 – 7 months (dogs) or 8 months (cats) until the worm matures. Adult males and females then mate, releasing their offspring into your pet’s bloodstream.

How Can I Tell If My Pet Is Infected?

Vets can test for worms using tests, most often an antigen test – though in cats this test is not sensitive enough. This test detects proteins, called antigens, that are released by adult female heartworms into the pet’s bloodstream. It can detect the antigens released by a heartworm as young as 5 months. In cats, an antibody test is most often used.

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Symptoms Pet Has Heartworms

Symptoms of heart disease can vary depending on the worm count, and how long the pet has been infected. Symptoms are not always obvious, especially in young, energetic pets. Dogs and cats show some similar and some different symptoms.

Symptoms in Dogs

Difficulty breathing
Persistent Coughing
Vomiting and weight loss
Loss of appetite
Swelling in abdomen
Blood in stool
Heart failure
Caval Syndrome: when the worm burden becomes so great that the heart is physically blocked by a mass of worms, obstructing the flow of blood.

Symptoms in Cats

Difficulty breathing
Rapid heartbeat
Vomiting and weight loss
Loss of appetite

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Prevention is Key!

Conventional heartworm treatment can be toxic to animals, and in some cases risky surgery for removal may be involved. Many vets advise pet owners give their pets anti-worm medication, to prevent this serious parasite infection.

And check your pet yearly! Yearly tests for heartworms are endorsed by the American Heartworm Association and yearly testing is considered the gold standard of heartworm control. So, yearly tests are recommended by most veterinarians.

Preventing naturally is easy. It requires a dedication to helping your pet live a healthy life, and incorporating plant-based formulas to support heart health.

Promoting a worm-free life for pet includes:

exercising – encouraging a healthy weight and increased blood circulation
eating well – providing pet a gluten-free, plant and protein based diet for enhanced nutrition absorption
herbal formulations – designed to strengthen pet’s heart

Your pet won’t know what’s bitten them.But you’ll know that his bark or meow is worse than his bite – and worm-free!

Read also: Cutting Dog Nails at Home

Our Expert

Dr. Janice Huntingford
Janice Huntingford, DVM, has been in veterinary practice for over 30 years and has founded two veterinary clinics since receiving her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at the Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph. She has studied extensively in both conventional and holistic modalities. Ask Dr. Jan

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