Florida is a year-round paradise for mosquitoes, and 16 species that can transmit heartworms reside in our lovely state. Protect your pet from these dangerous parasites by following our Bayview Animal Hospital team’s heartworm disease prevention tips.
#1: Educate yourself about heartworm disease in pets
Heartworms are large parasites that live in an infected pet’s heart and pulmonary arteries. Consider these important heartworm disease facts:
- Natural hosts — Canines, including domestic dogs, coyotes, raccoons, and foxes, are natural heartworm hosts, and wild canids act as reservoirs for these parasites.
- Transmission — Mosquitoes transmit heartworms. They ingest baby heartworms (i.e., microfilariae) when they take a blood meal from an infected canine. When a mosquito bites your pet, they can transmit the heartworm parasite to them.
- Damage — The parasites travel to a pet’s pulmonary vasculature. Heartworms affect cats and dogs differently:
- Dogs — In dogs, heartworms can grow to adulthood, mate, and reproduce. The worms cause an inflammatory response in the blood vessels that supply the lungs, causing scar tissue and thickened, stiff vessel walls. Eventually, the inflammation inhibits the heart’s ability to pump blood throughout the body.
- Cats — Cats are atypical heartworm hosts, and their immune systems react strongly to these parasites. Worms don’t usually live to adulthood, but the immature parasites are still problematic. Cats’ extreme immune response causes heartworm-associated respiratory disease (HARD), which mimics feline asthma. In addition, if a worm does grow to adulthood, the parasite quickly impedes blood flow through the cat’s small heart.
- Signs — Infected pets do not typically exhibit signs during the early disease stages, but as the condition progresses, dogs exhibit exercise intolerance, a persistent cough, weight loss, and abdominal fluid accumulation. Cats’ signs include coughing, wheezing, difficulty breathing, and sudden death.
- Diagnosis — Multiple tests are available to diagnose heartworms. To determine whether your pet is infected, your Bayview Animal Hospital veterinarian will typically perform more than one diagnostic, such as:
- Microfilariae testing — Tests can be done to detect the presence of microfilariae in a pet’s blood.
- Antigen testing — Antigen tests detect proteins that adult female heartworms produce. The American Heartworm Society recommends using microfilariae and antigen testing to confirm a dog’s heartworm diagnosis.
- Antibody testing — Antibody tests detect a pet’s immune response to heartworms. These tests are especially useful for cats because they typically don’t have circulating microfilariae or adult female worms.
- X-rays and ultrasound — In some cases, X-rays and ultrasound are necessary to detect heartworms.
- Treatment — Physical exertion increases the rate at which heartworms cause damage, and activity restriction is an extremely important heartworm treatment component. No treatment is approved for heartworm disease in cats, and supportive care is used to stabilize a cat’s condition and prevent worsening disease. After an affected dog’s condition is stabilized, our team will administer injections over several months to kill the parasites at every life stage.
#2: Ensure your pet receives year-round heartworm prevention medication
Administering year-round heartworm prevention medication is the only way to protect your pet effectively from heartworms. These medications are safe, easy to administer, and relatively inexpensive, especially when compared with the cost of a pet’s heartworm infection treatment. To make providing heartworm preventives convenient, several options are available:
- Chewables — Monthly heartworm prevention medications are available in a tasty, treat-like chew.
- Spot-on topicals — You can administer a topical spot-on heartworm treatment each month.
- Injectables — If you don’t want to give your pet heartworm prevention every month, our veterinary team can administer an injectable preventive every 6 or 12 months.
Some heartworm prevention medications only prevent heartworms, but others protect your pet from additional parasites such as intestinal worms, fleas, ticks, and mites. These products are only available through a veterinary prescription from a veterinarian, and our team will help you determine the best heartworm prevention for your pet.
#3: Schedule regular veterinary visits
Your veterinary professional should examine your pet at least once per year. These visits are important to enable your veterinarian to detect health conditions in the early stages—when they are easier to treat and diagnose. Your veterinarian will also typically perform heartworm disease testing during these annual visits. A negative heartworm test is necessary to obtain a veterinary prescription for your pet’s heartworm medication, making these visits essential.
#4: Minimize mosquitoes in your pet’s environment
When you live in Florida, you can’t entirely prevent mosquitoes in and around your home. However, you can minimize your pet’s mosquito exposure by following these tips:
- Install window and door screens.
- Close doors and windows.
- Avoid taking your pet out at sunrise, sunset, and nighttime, when mosquitoes are most active.
- Once a week, empty and clean items that hold water in your yard such as tires, buckets, planters, pools, birdbaths, flower pot saucers, and trash containers.
- Tightly cover water storage containers.
- Use an insecticide to treat water that isn’t used for drinking and can’t be covered or dumped.
- Use an insecticide to treat areas where mosquitoes rest such as under patio furniture and in the carport or garage.
By following these tips, you can help prevent your pet from contracting heartworm disease. If you would like to have your pet screened for heartworms, contact our Bayview Animal Hospital team, and we will ensure your furry pal’s heart is parasite-free.