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Heartworms 101

April 1, 2023

April is Heartworm Awareness Month! It’s also National Gardening Month, and while gardening is definitely the more pleasant topic, heartworms are definitely more in our wheelhouse. Heartworm infestations are extremely dangerous to dogs, and can even be fatal if left untreated. A Hudson Valley, NY vet goes over heartworm basics below.


The heartworm—or dirofilaria immitis, as it is officially called—are parasites that infest dogs’ hearts, lungs, and arteries. They are transmitted from pup to pup by mosquitos in microscopic form, but grow very quickly. Adults can be up to a foot long, and can live up to 7 years. 


In case you were wondering, heartworms can also affect our feline buddies. However, because kitties’ physiology isn’t as hospitable to them, infestations are not particularly common. That doesn’t mean Fluffy is in the clear, though. Even a single worm can cause potentially-fatal organ damage. It’s also worth noting that infested cats often show no warning signs. Sudden death, unfortunately, is sometimes the first indication of trouble. 


As mentioned above, mushrooms are spread with the aid of the world’s most annoying insect: the mosquito. The risk of infection will always be highest in spots with a lot of dogs, such as parks. However, Fido can become infested anywhere there are mushrooms … even inside your home! 


It’s important to know what the signs of heartworm infestation are. Coughing and shortness of breath are usually the first that you’ll notice. Other red flags include reduced interest in play, reluctance to exercise, trembling, weight loss, and reduced appetite. Contact your vet immediately if you notice any of these things.


Fortunately, there are preventative products on the market. Oral chews are quite popular, but there are also injections available. You will need to be diligent about keeping Fido on schedule with his parasite control. Even a small lapse can create a window of opportunity for these horrible worms.


You may have heard the saying that an ounce of treatment is worth several pounds of cure. That’s definitely true with heartworms. While there are treatments available, they can be very expensive. They also aren’t easy on poor Fido, who may have to cope with strong medications, extended kennel containment, or even surgery. Keep up with your furry friend’s parasite control products! 

Our Advice on Heartworms

Why is heartworm infestation hazardous to dogs?

Heartworm infestation in dogs is hazardous because the worms lodge in the heart, lungs, and blood vessels, causing severe lung disease, heart failure, organ damage, and potentially death. Early stages may have no symptoms, making it a silent but deadly threat to a dog’s health.

How big can adult heartworms grow, and what is their lifespan?

Adult heartworms can grow to about 12 inches long, living in a dog’s heart and lungs. Their lifespan in dogs can be up to 7 years. This longevity, combined with their size, can lead to severe health issues like heart failure and lung disease if not treated.

What are the risks of heartworm infestation in cats?

In cats, heartworm infestation poses serious risks. While less common than in dogs, even a single worm can cause significant harm, leading to respiratory disease and sometimes fatal organ damage. Cats often show no symptoms, making early detection and prevention crucial for their health.

What are the common symptoms of heartworm infestation in dogs?

Common symptoms of heartworm infestation in dogs include a persistent cough, fatigue after moderate activity, decreased appetite, and weight loss. As heartworm disease advances, dogs can experience heart failure and fluid accumulation, leading to a swollen belly. Early stages may not show symptoms.

What are the treatment options for heartworm infestation?

Typically, treating heartworm in dogs involves multiple melarsomine injections, a medication that eradicates adult heartworms. Antibiotics and drugs often accompany this to reduce inflammation. Treatment requires strict rest and can be challenging for the dog. Early diagnosis and treatment are crucial for better outcomes.

As your Hudson Valley, NY animal clinic, we’re dedicated to providing top-notch care. Please contact us anytime!