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Heartworm in Dogs: Causes, Prevention and Treatment


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Learning your dog has heartworm can be awfully frightening; after all, the disease affects dogs in all 50 states as well as internationally, and is very difficult to treat. Fortunately, there are ways to prevent your dog from getting a heartworm infestation.

According to WebMD, the only way for a dog to get heartworm is to be bitten by a mosquito infested with heartworm larvae. The disease is most endemic in tropical regions like the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, where the likelihood of a dog getting heartworm is almost at 100 percent, but it has also survived in desert states such as California and Arizona, where irrigation systems allow the infestation to thrive. Once a dog is bitten by an infected mosquito, it takes about seven months for adult heartworms to form. Growing up to 12 inches long, the worms start in the heart and make their way into the lungs and surrounding blood vessels. A dog can have as many as 250 worms, which can live up to seven years in the dog’s system. Sounds scary, right?

Thankfully, heartworm can be prevented through a veterinary-administered prophylaxis medication. The medication can also turn a mild to moderate case of heartworm into a nearly invisible one, while dogs with more severe cases may suffer from lung complications due to the strength of the medication. Humans cannot contract heartworm from their dogs; the only way anyone can get heartworm is from direct contact with an infected mosquito.

Heartworm takes the form of three classes: Class I, which is so mild that there are little to no visible symptoms, Class II, which is indicated by coughing and an aversion to exercise, and the most severe, Class III, defined as symptoms of anemia, inability to exercise, fainting and in the worst cases, right-sided chronic heart failure. Symptoms such as high blood pressure, difficulty breathing and rapid heartbeat may be revealed during a physical examination and are especially associated with Class III.

Treatment of heartworm is as follows: The veterinarian may prescribe an antibiotic to kill the heartworm’s bacterium—Wolbachia—which causes inflammation in the body. Veterinarians may also prescribe a preventative medication to kill heartworm larvae before the adult heartworm treatment. Once the courses of these medications have been completed, an injection to kill the worms will be administered over a course of 60 days. The infected dog must stay in the hospital during injection days for observation of its reaction to the treatment. The dog’s activity level must be kept at a minimum during and several weeks after treatment since too much movement increases blood flow to blocked areas, causing discomfort for the dog and increasing the likelihood of complications. Dogs should be tested again after six months to ensure that there are no remaining heartworm larvae.

While prevention is certainly the highest defense against the horrors of heartworm, the treatment outlined above can be perfectly successful for clearing up an infestation, especially if the case is mild. While a dog can also recover from severe cases of heartworm, the disease will also bring with it a higher risk of complications and even death. Overall, awareness of the disease and how to prevent it is the most powerful tool when it comes to keeping your dog from becoming another statistic.