Heartworms: What are they, and what to do about them?

Most pet owners know the basics about heartworms, but as April is focused on bringing awareness to this, we wanted to focus on what it is, its impact on your pets, and what to do about it.

Heartworm, a parasite, is most commonly found in dogs, but cats and ferrets can act as hosts too. The foot-long worms live in the heart, lungs, and blood vessels, leading to critical issues such as lung disease, heart failure, and organ damage. If you’re wondering is heartworm contagious, know it is both transferrable and treatable. Mosquitos carry it from one animal to another, including from some wild and feral species. Over ten to fourteen days, the larvae will mature and then can live in dogs for up to seven years. Left untreated, they will continue to reproduce. Fortunately, most cases of heartworms are treatable by your veterinarian.

Know the warning signs, but also know that in the early stages of infection, heartworm-positive dogs might not present any symptoms. If you notice a mild but persistent cough, hesitance to exercise, lethargy after mild activity, weight loss, or a decreased appetite – contact your veterinarian for heartworm testing.

Talk to your vet about monthly heartworm prevention, and test your dog annually. Your vet will prescribe FDA-approved heartworm meds (not homeopathic remedies); however, dogs can suffer from residual effects even long after removing the worms.

In cats, most heartworms die off within 2 to 3 years, before the cat reaches maturity, which means it might go undiagnosed and become heartworm associated respiratory disease (HARD). Dogs can receive treatment after infection, but cat owners must use preventative measures only. Many times, heartworm-positive cats do not express symptoms until a very abrupt collapse. Other times, an owner might notice wheezing, vomiting, loss of appetite, difficulty walking, or seizures.

With ferrets, heartworm disease treatment and detection are more problematic. Owners should discuss monthly preventative medication with their veterinarian for both indoor and outdoor ferrets. Similar to cats and dogs, heartworm-positive symptoms in ferrets include rapid heartbeat, lethargy, difficulty breathing, decreased appetite, and exercise intolerance.