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Heartworms

We call them the Wicked Worms of the West. Your vet has probably mentioned them…but, what exactly are heartworms?

Heartworms were first identified in the United States in 1847 and occurred most frequently on the seacoast in the southeastern United States. In recent years, heartworm disease has been found in all 50 states in the USA. The movement of infected animals that could serve as sources of infection for others is probably a significant contributing factor to heartworms spreading across North America. The actual number of infected dogs and cats in the United States is unknown.

Heartworms, Dirofilaria immitis, belong to the same class of worms as roundworms. In fact, they look a bit like roundworms, but that is where the similarity ends. Heartworms spend their adult life in the right side of the heart and the large blood vessels connecting the heart to the lungs.

Heartworms are found in dogs, cats, and ferrets. They also occur in wild animals such as California sea lions, foxes and wolves. They have rarely been found in people.

So…what are the signs of heartworm infection and how is it diagnosed?

Most dogs with heartworm infection do not show signs of disease. Some dogs may show decreased appetite, loss of weight, and listlessness. Often, the first sign of the disease is a cough. Animals with severe heartworm disease will start to show lack of endurance during exercise. Some will accumulate fluid in their abdomen (ascites) that makes them look pot-bellied. In rare situations in which animals have many adult worms, the animals may die of sudden heart failure.

Heartworm preventives

A number of monthly heartworm preventives for dogs are on the market. Some heartworm preventives, or drugs that are combined with them, will control other parasites. Preventive products should be used year-round, even in areas where mosquitoes only occur seasonally. Even if doses are accidentally skipped, preventive products are still beneficial to the pet. If given consistently over a 12-month period, it's possible to actually stop worms from developing into adults. Also, monthly heartworm preventives have activity against intestinal parasites, which inadvertently infect millions of people every year. These preventives protect pets and people.

Testing

When and how often pets should be tested for heartworm infection is a matter of debate. In making a decision on when to test, we must consider how common heartworm disease is where the pet lives, what heartworm preventive the pet is receiving, and how long the mosquito season lasts.

The American Heartworm Society (AHS) advises all adult dogs being started on a heartworm preventive for the first time should be tested. In addition, all dogs should be tested annually for heartworm infection. In the past, if a dog had been on preventive methods routinely, it was not considered necessary to test every year, perhaps only every two to three years. Because of reports of animals on preventives that still contracted heartworms, the AHS recommends a more conservative testing routine. It may be too difficult to document when an animal hasn't been checked in three years, and therefore, annual testing will ensure that an infection is caught in plenty of time to effectively manage it.

What are the signs of heartworm infection and how is it diagnosed?

Most dogs with heartworm infection do not show signs of disease. Some dogs may show decreased appetite, loss of weight, and listlessness. Often, the first sign of the disease is a cough. Animals with severe heartworm disease will start to show lack of endurance during exercise. Some will accumulate fluid in their abdomen (ascites) that makes them look pot-bellied. In rare situations in which animals have many adult worms, the animals may die of sudden heart failure.

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