April is National Heartworm Awareness Month; by protecting our dogs, we can also protect ourselves from the heartache that can come from the loss of our beloved canine companion or the expensive and difficult treatment due to this preventable health issue.
Established in 1974, the American Heartworm Society strives to stop the spread of the disease through both the distribution of funds for heartworm research and the spread of the information to researchers, veterinarians and the public. Through a series of infographics and videos, the organization gives animal lovers the knowledge they need to combat this killer.
First off, what exactly are heartworms? If you’re unfamiliar with the name, heartworms are roundworms which embed themselves in a pet’s heart, lungs and/or blood vessels. Through the bite of a mosquito, canines can contract heartworms due to mosquitoes transferring infective larvae from a previous canine host on to a new victim. A heartworm can live out its life cycle in an infected host, mating and creating many more heartworms during that period it is there. Although it is more widespread during the summer months, mosquitoes can transmit heartworms all year long. Your dog’s annual vet visit should include a test for heartworms, regardless of whether the dog regularly takes a heartworm preventative.
If your dog gets tested positive for heartworms, rest assured that most infected dogs can be successfully treated. Once your dog tests positive on an antigen test, the diagnosis should be confirmed with an additional and different test. Because the treatment regimen for heartworm is both expensive and complex, your veterinarian will want to be absolutely sure that treatment is necessary before starting. It is required that you restrict exercise for your dog, although this may difficult, especially if they are used to being active. This is because physical exertion increases the rate at which the heartworms cause damage in the heart and lungs.
Once your vet has determined that your dog is stable and ready for heartworm treatment, they will recommend a treatment protocol involving several steps. The American Heartworm Society has guidelines for developing this plan of attack. Dogs with no signs or mild signs of heartworm disease, such as cough or exercise intolerance, have a high success rate with treatment. The severity of heartworm disease does not always correlate with the severity of symptoms; dogs with many worms may have few or no symptoms early in the course of the disease.
Finally, approximately 6 months after treatment is completed, your veterinarian will perform a heartworm test to confirm that all heartworms have been eliminated. To avoid the possibility of your dog contracting heartworm disease again, you will want to conduct these tests year-round for heartworm prevention.