Heartworm in Dogs
Heartworm disease is caused by parasites living in your dog’s heart. The parasites are transmitted to the body via mosquitoes and cause your dog to experience weakness and breathing difficulties. If left untreated, the parasites can cause heart failure and death.
Symptoms of Dog Heartworm
While mosquitoes live only four to eight weeks, heartworms can live in your dog for up to two years. They become a problem when they reach the adult stage of their life cycle and move into the right ventricle of the heart. Once in your dog’s heart, the worms—which measure two to ten inches—disrupt the flow of blood, leading to both lung and heart problems. It takes approximately two months for heartworms to develop into adults and nearly seven weeks after infection for symptoms to appear. These include coughing, exercise intolerance, difficulty breathing, and bloating due to fluid in the abdomen. As the disease progresses, extreme weight loss and difficulties breathing become apparent. Symptoms vary from dog to dog and can appear to diminish before returning again.
Dog Heartworm Diagnosis
Your veterinarian can check your dog’s blood for the presence of antigens or antibodies produced in the process of fighting heartworm disease. If there is a large enough heartworm burden, a blood sample can also be examined under the microscope for the presence of adult heartworms. Chest x-rays can sometimes be helpful in diagnosing right sided congestive heart failure which can be present due to heartworm disease. Since heartworms can exist in your dog long before symptoms appear, be sure to get a heartworm test as soon as you suspect their presence.
Dog Heartworm Treatment
If your dog actually becomes infected by heartworms, injections of a heartworm adulticide (literally “adult killer”) will likely be administered. Though these shots are generally effective, they can be extremely painful and cause soreness and swelling to occur. In addition, your dog will need to be strictly prohibited from exercise for approximately five weeks as aerobic activity could lead to severe pulmonary complications.
Dog Heartworm Prevention
Since the best defense against the effects of heartworm is guarding against the parasites that cause it, be sure to use Heartgard Plus, Interceptor, or one of the many products designed for this purpose. This is especially important during the summer months when mosquitoes are most prevalent. Your veterinarian will probably advise administering the tablets approximately once a month. A heartworm test will also be necessary to restart preventative medication if your dog has been off of it for an extended period of time. Starting your dog on heartworm preventative medication if they already have heartworm disease can be dangerous. Your veterinarian may also recommend screening for heartworm disease every one to two years to make sure he/she is heartworm free.
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