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April is National Heartworm Awareness Month. Rescues, veterinary clinics, and organizations nationwide are devoted to educating pet parents on the prevention of heartworm disease. First and foremost, what is a heartworm and how do animals get it? Heartworms are parasites that are spread by mosquitoes from one animal to the next. The “baby” worm or larva start in the bloodstream and then end up in the hearts and lungs of animals. Heartworm can lead to severe lung disease, heart failure, organ damage, and even death in both dogs and cats. It is easier to prevent heartworms with a monthly treatment plan than it is to treat an actual heartworm infection.

You may now be thinking, “My pet isn’t on heartworm prevention, what are some signs and symptoms that they may have this?” Your first step is to consult a veterinarian if you are concerned or believe that your pet may have heartworms. It can take up to six to seven months for larva to mature into adults and start reproducing. Clinical signs are not typically seen before that but can include mild persistent coughing, reluctance to move or exercise, fatigue after only moderate exercises, reduced appetite, and weight loss.

Your veterinarian can run a diagnostic test by drawing a small sample of blood to check for heartworms. Unfortunately, the earliest heartworm that can be detected would be about five months after your dog or cat has been bitten by an infected mosquito. Treatment for heartworms can be scary and tedious. You may need to visit the vet multiple times throughout the month for blood-work and x-rays and may need hospitalization and a series of injections that can span over a couple of months. The American Heartworm Society is very clear that alternative therapies claiming to be “natural” or “herbal” will not be effective for the safe treatment of heartworm disease.

While cats are more resistant and atypical hosts for heartworm, they can still be infected. Even if you have an indoor cat, mosquitos can still find their way indoors. Since it is rare for cats to carry heartworms, there is a chance to be misdiagnosed. Symptoms are similar to those in dogs so heartworm can still cause organ damage and respiratory disease. You should have your feline friend tested regularly just to be on the safe side.

Testing is key to help prevent heartworm. If a heartworm-positive dog is not tested prior to starting their preventative regime, the dog will remain infected and the disease will progress. Preventive medicines do not kill heartworms and can trigger dangerous reactions. It is best to test annually. Prevention is the best way to keep your pets healthy and happy so book an appointment today to get your furry friend tested. Lastly, be sure to get the oral or topical medication needed to prevent heartworm disease!