Vet Blog

Heartworm Disease, Diagnosis and Treatment

April 30, 2019

Heartworm disease is just one of the different parasite infections that can potentially affect your pet.

However, unlike some of the others, it can have serious and even deadly consequences if it is left untreated.

Heartworms are transmitted by mosquitos that act as an interim host for the disease. When a mosquito feeds on an infected animal, it takes heartworm larvae called microfilaria into its mouth. These then enter your pet's bloodstream when she is bitten. Once in her blood, the microfilaria spends six months traveling to the heart, lungs, and adjacent large blood vessels where they will live and mature. Once heartworms reach adulthood, each is around 5mm wide and up to 16 inches in length. They can also mate and reproduce. What might begin as just a few worms can quickly turn into dozens? In severely infected dogs, several hundred worms may be present in the heart, lungs, and blood vessels.

The Dangers of Heartworm Disease

The danger of heartworms comes from their presence in the lungs, heart, and blood vessels where they affect the circulatory and respiratory systems of the animals they infect. In preventing the flow of oxygenated blood around her body, they will cause damage to your pet's vital organs and body systems. She will also find it increasingly hard to breathe thanks to the accumulation of worms inside her lungs. Eventually, the number of worms may become so great that her body begins to shut down, resulting in a senseless death.

Symptoms of Heartworm Disease

It takes about 6 months from the time of being bitten for an animal to develop symptoms of heartworm infection. When they do become apparent, they will include some or all of the following:

  • A persistent, dry cough
  • Coughing or fainting after exercise
  • Unwillingness to play or exercise
  • Shortness of breath
  • Rapid breathing
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Bulging chest
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • General lethargy and disinterest

Diagnosing Heartworm Disease

Diagnosing heartworm disease involves a series of different tests that look at various aspects of your pet's health. The results of these will be looked at in combination to determine if your pet is likely to have a heartworm infection. These tests include:

  • Antigen tests, which look for the presence of a specific protein produced by adult female heartworms
  • Microscopic examination of blood samples for the presence of microfilaria (heartworm larvae)
  • Blood chemistry penal
  • Complete blood count, which also takes into account whether your pet's immune system is actively fighting an infection
  • Urinalysis
  • X-rays and ultrasounds of her heart and lungs to check for abnormalities

As with most medical problems, prompt diagnosis can make a dramatic difference to the overall outcome of your pet's condition. Therefore, if you have any reason to suspect that your furbaby might be suffering from a heartworm infection it is important that you get her seen by your vet as soon as possible.

Treatment for Heartworm Disease

Although there is an approved treatment for dogs with heartworms, cats and ferrets with the condition are not so lucky. Instead, your veterinarian in Nashville, TN will work on keeping the symptoms and effects of the condition under control until your pet hopefully outlives the worms that are present in her body.

Treating heartworms in dogs is a multi-step process that involves killing both microfilaria and any adult heartworms. However, in the case of adult heartworms, this must be done gradually. This is because some dogs will experience a reaction to the breakdown of the worm's in their body, due to them releasing bacteria when they die. As a result, your vet will almost certainly keep your pet in their care for at least 12-24 hours during each stage of adult worm destruction.

In addition to the medications used to destroy the heartworms and heartworm larvae, your pet may also be given drugs to help prevent them from reacting to the treatment, along with any other medications which may be helpful in her recoveries, such as IV fluids or pain relief. Your vet in Nashville, TN will be happy to walk you through every step of the process before your precious pet begins her treatment.

If you suspect that your pet may be suffering from heartworm disease, or if you have any questions about any aspect of the condition, our compassionate and experienced veterinarians in South Nashville, TN are on hand to support you. Please contact us at (615) 833-7387 to schedule an appointment.