Heartworm Disease is a serious, possibly fatal condition that is caused by parasitic worms living in the blood vessels near the lungs and heart. Both dogs and cats can be affected by heartworm disease, although they are affected differently. The good news about heartworm disease is that is often preventable and treatable. However, if left undetected and/or untreated, it will cause permanent damage to a dog's heart and will lead to death. Cats are not as susceptible to infection as dogs, but the outcome can be as serious.
Being educated about heartworm disease is important to your pet because the River Valley is an area with a high incidence of the disease. Heartworm disease is spread through mosquitoes, and areas with water sources ideal for mosquito populations have higher rates of infection. The graphic below shows the areas with the highest incidence as along the Mississippi and Arkansas rivers, along the bayou areas of the Delta, and in the wetlands of the Southeast. Living in the Arkansas River Valley makes pets more at-risk for catching heartworms.
The life cycle of the heartworm must include a mosquito host. A mosquito takes a blood meal from an infected dog or cat and provides a place for the microfilaria (aka "baby" mosquitoes) to develop into infectious heartworm larva. When the mosquito bites another dog or cat, the infectious heartworm larva enter that pet through the bite wound. The larva develop into adult heartworms in the newly-infected dog or cat over the next six months.
Some pets in the earlier stages of heartworm disease may exhibit few symptoms. As the disease progresses, however, symptoms often become more apparent. Dogs with heartworm disease may exhibit a persistent cough, unusually heavy breathing after moderate exercise, lack of appetite, and weight loss. Cats with heartworm disease may exhibit symptoms that closely resemble respiratory infections or asthma, gagging, rapid breathing, weight loss, or lethargy.
You can know for sure if your pet has heartworms with a simple blood test done in the veterinary clinic. A small amount of blood is used to determine if adult or "baby" heartworms are living in your pet's circulatory system. A treatment plan can be developed for your pet based on the findings of these blood tests.
Most cases of heartworm disease, especially if detected early can be treated. Only the most advanced cases offer a poor prognosis. However, prevention of the disease is much easier, more effective, and more economical than treatment once a pet has the disease. Prevention is as simple as giving a tablet or applying a topical once monthly or taking your pet for a preventative injection once every 6 months. There are several economical options for heartworm prevention.