Dirofilaria immitis is a nematode (roundworm) commonly known as heartworm that can cause disease in cats and dogs. Although there are some differences in the development of this parasite in these animals, the good news is that this illness can be prevented with the administration of specific medication.
Heartworms are spread through mosquito’s bites that carry infective heartworm larvae. The larvae migrate through the animal’s blood, until they reach the heart and blood vessels within the lungs and mature there, a process that can take around 6 months. An adult heartworm can grow about 12 inches long! Then, the adult larvae reproduce and release immature heartworms into the animal’s bloodstream – the microfilariae. When a mosquito bites an infected animal, the microfilariae enter the mosquito’s body, mature there and can be passed on to another animal, continuing the parasite cycle and spreading the illness to the next host. As the life cycle of heartworms is shorter in cats than the cycle of those infecting dogs, the disease in cats is less common.
Some signs of heartworm disease in dogs are coughing, exercise intolerance and poor body condition. In cats, signs include coughing, dyspnea, vomiting and irregular heart rhythm. However, symptoms can vary, depending on the number of worms present in the body, the duration of the infestation and the response of the animal. In dogs, the heartworm disease can range from class 1 – frequently asymptomatic – to class 4, when the dog can develop caval syndrome, which is caused by the presence of so many worms that the flow of blood into the heart can be blocked.
A quick blood test can be run to screen a dog for heartworms. It’s important to do this test routinely, in a preventive way, to monitor the animal’s health and catch the disease early, when treatment is safest, most effective and less expensive. Additional tests can be used to complement the diagnosis. Treatment includes medication to kill circulating microfilariae and most animals will receive a series of three injections to kill adult worms in the heart and lungs. If the dog has caval syndrome, a surgical procedure is necessary to remove adult worms. In cats, there are no specific tests to diagnose heartworm disease. But, there is a variety of other tests that can be done and aid the diagnosis.
It’s recommended to visit a vet regularly to check your furry friend’s general health, in order to prevent diseases. Your pet deserves all your love and attention! Also, Hollywood Houndz is now partnering with Val-U-Vet – a mobile vet clinic that comes here once a month and, among other services, performs the heartworm test in the same day with very good prices. Come and check!