Heartworm is a problem for many dogs and cats in Ontario during the warm summer months. The disease is spread by a bite from a mosquito carrying infected larvae, and it can be fatal to your pet if you don’t catch it early.
According to the American Heartworm Society, pets exposed to infected mosquitos run an almost 100% risk of becoming positive for heartworm. As with all parasites that plague our companion animals, your best bet is to prevent your pet from contracting it in the first place.
Here are some common myths about heartworm that we’re debunking:
Myth #1: Your pet only needs heartworm prevention in summer
Many pet parents think that because heartworm is carried by mosquitos, pets only need parasite protection during summer. Since all it takes to contract the disease is one bite, however, people who travel south with their pets during the winter months need to provide preventive treatment year-round. Unless your pet stays home indoors all winter long in Canada, it simply isn’t worth the risk to stop your parasite prevention regimen.
Myth #2: There’s a vaccine against heartworm
Most of the serious diseases pets contract can be prevented by vaccination, but heartworm doesn’t fall into this category. If you stop or skip dosages of your heartworm prevention you leave the pet at risk of infection. In addition, regular tick and flea control treatments don’t provide protection against heartworm, so you do need the right medication for the pet.
Myth #3: You’ll know if your pet gets heartworm
The fact is that many pets with heartworm show no symptoms of illness whatsoever, so it’s difficult to spot your pet is ill until s/he is really sick. Heartworm develops in four stages, which are:
• Stage 1 – Most pets have no symptoms
• Stage 2 – Some pets develop mild symptoms, including tiring more easily and coughing occasionally.
• Stage 3 – Pets in this stage have trouble breathing and a persistent cough.
• Stage 4 – Once your pet’s heartworm infection reaches this point, s/he will likely be coughing up blood and show easily recognizable signs of illness.
It’s best not to wait until anything past stage 2, so if your pet isn’t on heartworm prevention and shows any of the symptoms in stage 2, bring him in for immediate evaluation and testing.
Myth #4: Heartworm is contagious (to people and animals)
We’re not sure where this one came from, but it isn’t true so there’s no need to “quarantine” your pet away from family members if he is positive for heartworm. It’s extremely unlikely for humans to contract the disease even if they are bitten directly by an infected mosquito, and since that’s the only way for it to spread you don’t need to worry about all your other pets developing it.
Myth #5: It’s easy to treat heartworm
The fact is that heartworm treatment, especially in the later stages, is difficult and dangerous. The worms can grow up to a foot in length and wrap themselves around your pet’s heart. Getting rid of them requires giving your pet a series of injections containing a compound made from arsenic. This is basically a poison and the treatment itself can cause a pulmonary thromboembolism, and possibly death.
Treatment for heartworm in dogs is expensive and tops $1,000, and there’s no approved treatment for heartworm in cats. Without treatment, your pet will die either from heart problems, or from kidney or liver failure. It’s far more kind and cost effective to provide prevention treatments that to expose your pet to the risks of heartworm.