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The Heartfelt Truth about Heartworm Disease

Today, let's chat about something that's not only vital to the heart health of our pups but also to our peace of mind: heartworm disease. If you're in South Carolina like me, you've probably heard the term quite often. With the guidance of the American Heartworm Society, let's unravel this disease, understand why our beautiful Palmetto State is a hotspot, and discover the profound importance of prevention.


Heartworm Basics: Cause & Transmission



Heartworm disease is primarily caused by a parasite called Dirofilaria immitis. It gets its name because the adult worms primarily live in the heart, lungs, and associated blood vessels of an infected animal. But how does it make its way to our furry friends? The primary culprit: mosquitoes. A single bite from an infected mosquito can transfer heartworm larvae to our pets. Given our humid climate and mosquito-friendly environment in South Carolina, the risk of transmission is substantially high.


Important note: Mosquitoes do NOT go away during winter months in South Carolina, so it's important to treat year round. Remember it only takes ONE to infect your dog.


Signs & Symptoms: The Silent Sneak


The real kicker with heartworm disease is that the early stages might show no symptoms at all. However, as the disease progresses and more worms crowd the heart and lungs, symptoms become more noticeable. These can include:

  • A mild, persistent cough

  • Fatigue after moderate activity

  • Reluctance to exercise

  • Decreased appetite

  • Weight loss


Advanced stages can lead to heart failure, and the disease can also have fatal consequences.


Heartworm in Cats: A Silent Threat

While heartworm is often associated with dogs, cats are by no means immune. Infected mosquitoes can transmit the heartworm to our feline friends too. The worrisome aspect of heartworm in cats is its subtlety; many cats show no clear signs of infection. However, when symptoms do appear, they can mimic other feline diseases, making diagnosis tricky. These symptoms might include coughing, respiratory distress, or sudden death. Unlike in dogs, there's no approved treatment for heartworm in cats, making prevention the only reliable shield against this perilous disease. Many clinics do test for heartworm disease in cats combined with annual bloodwork or FIV/FeLV screening.


Testing Annually: Why So Often?


I get this question a lot: "If my dog is on heartworm prevention, why do we need to test every year?" It's a valid question, and I swear we aren't just trying to run up your bill! So here’s the deal:


1. No prevention is 100% foolproof. While preventatives are highly effective, there's still a minute risk. There is also increasing concern about resistance to current products.

2. Ensuring the efficacy of treatment. If, for some reason, a dose was missed or late, the test ensures that the prevention is working as it should.

3. Safety of administering preventatives. Giving heartworm preventatives to a dog that's already infected can have adverse effects. The annual test acts as a safety net.


Treatment: It’s No Walk in the Park


Treating heartworm is complicated. It's not only costly but can be hard on your pup. Treatment often involves a series of drug injections to kill off the adult worms, paired with strict rest to prevent complications. In some severe cases, surgical removal might be necessary. Moreover, the treatment doesn't come without risks and potential side effects.


Prevention: A No-Brainer Decision

Heartworm incidence map
Source: https://www.heartwormsociety.org/pet-owner-resources/heartworm-basics

When we compare the hassle, risk, and cost of treatment to the ease and affordability of prevention, the choice is clear. Prevention methods, such as monthly pills, topical meds, or injections, not only protect our dogs from heartworm but are also substantially cheaper and safer than treating an established infection.


Wrapping It Up


Dear dog owners, especially those in South Carolina, the message is crystal clear: the best treatment for heartworm disease is PREVENTION. Armed with knowledge and guided by experts like the American Heartworm Society, let’s vow to keep our pups safe, heart-healthy, and by our sides for years to come.

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