Warning Signs of Heartworms

In many ways, adopting a pet is a lot like having a child. When you choose to become a parent to an animal, be it scaly, furry or feathered, you become entirely responsible for its health and wellbeing. Unfortunately, animals are unable to verbalize when they are unwell.  Instead, they are entirely reliant on their humans identifying the signs and symptoms that they are able to show – and they hope that we get it right! Failing to get our pet the medical attention that they need can have permanent if not catastrophic consequences. This means that as responsible and caring pet owner, we must always be hyper-vigilant for signs that our pet is unwell.


There are many different things that can affect the health of our pet. One of the biggest challenges facing us is parasite infestations, and one in particular is a serious cause for concern – heartworms.


What are heartworms?

Heartworms are an easily preventable parasitic infection that can affect dogs, cats and ferrets. It is also one of the most dangerous of all parasitic diseases, causing your pet to experience a range of unpleasant and debilitating symptoms. Left untreated, heartworm infections almost always result in severe lung disease, organ damage and heart failure.


How are heartworms spread?

Mosquitos are responsible for the spread of heartworms in the United States, and as many as 30 different varieties of the insect can carry heartworm offspring, called microfilariae, from host to host. To become a carrier, a mosquito must bite an infected animal and ingest some of its blood, which contains microfilariae. These then develop for up to a month in the stomach of the mosquito before filtering into its mouth. When a carrier mosquito bites a new animal, some of the microfilariae are transmitted into the new host where they migrate into the bloodstream and make their way to the lungs, heart and other adjacent blood vessels.


How quickly can a heartworm infestation be detected?

It takes around six months after being transmitted for the microfilariae to mature and start producing offspring of their own. Therefore, the earliest that microfilariae can be reasonably well detected in an animal’s bloodstream is about six months after being bitten.


What are the warning signs of a heartworm infection?

One of the main difficulties with heartworms is that it can take a considerable amount of time for symptoms of a heartworm infection to appear. In many instances, it takes several years for an animal to contract signs of the disease, by which time it is quite well advanced.


However, there are some warning signs to watch out for, which in the early stages include:

-         Shortness of breath

-         Regular bouts of a short, dry cough

-         Loss of stamina

-         Lethargy

These symptoms tend to be the most noticeable after exercise, such as a game of fetch or your regular walk. Your pet may also seem a little disorientated after any sort of physical exertion.


As the infection progresses, further symptoms may become apparent including:

-         Difficulty breathing

-         Extreme lethargy, particularly after exercise

-         Unwillingness to participate in physical activity

-         Loss of appetite

-         Persistent coughing

-         Weight loss

-         Collapse


In rare cases it is possible for heartworm to spread to other parts of the body including the eyes and brain. If this happens, symptoms such as blindness, confusion and seizures may occur.


If you believe that your pet may be suffering from heartworms, you should seek the advice of our veterinarian at Nippers Corner Pet Medical Center as soon as possible. We are delighted to be able to offer fast and comprehensive heartworm testing, and if your pet is tested as positive for the disease, we will support you and your furbaby through the treatment process. For further advice or to schedule an appointment, please contact us today.