Meet Buddy. Buddy is an active, mature dog who lives in North Carolina. He loves to play outdoors, go hiking, and to travel around the country with his family. Every morning, Buddy goes for walks with his mom.

It’s Monday morning, and, just like any other Monday, Buddy’s mom grabs his leash to prepare for their walk together.

“Buddy!” beckons his mom. Buddy hears the ring of his mom’s voice and gladly goes to her. As Buddy approaches, his mom notices that he’s a little sluggish.

During the walk, the usually energetic and perky Buddy gets progressively slower. His mom encourages him to press forward, but she wonders what is going on with her walking partner. After they return home, it’s time for Buddy’s favorite part of the day: breakfast. But, when his food bowl is placed in front of him, Buddy sees the bowl, sniffs it, and walks away.

Now, Buddy’s mom is concerned, so she calls the veterinarian. After a thorough examination and blood work, Buddy’s veterinarian diagnoses him with heartworm disease.

What is heartworm disease and how is it transmitted?

The potentially deadly heartworm disease is caused by a parasitic worm that is spread through the bite of an infected mosquito. When a mosquito bites a dog infected with heartworm, immature heartworms—microfilariae—are transmitted. Once inside the mosquito, the microfilariae develop into larvae and are transmitted to their next host when the mosquito bites.  

When a dog is infected, the larvae make their way to his heart, lungs, and surrounding blood vessels. Once there, they will grow and reproduce, becoming mature heartworms in approximately 6 months. The spaghetti-like mature heartworms can grow to be up to 12 inches long and can live for 5 to 7 years. They will mate and reproduce, continuing the life cycle. Dogs with severe infections can have more than 200 worms in the blood vessels surrounding the heart and lungs.

Cats can also be infected with heartworm disease, but they are not natural hosts for the disease, so the worms cannot reproduce inside a cat. Cats with heartworm disease will typically have no more than two or three mature heartworms surrounding the heart and lungs.

Signs of heartworm disease

Because signs of heartworm disease don’t appear until the heartworms have matured and are reproducing, many pet owners don’t know their pets have heartworm until 6 months after the disease was transmitted. At that time, symptoms will become progressively worse, and the disease is more difficult to treat.

Signs of heartworm disease in dogs include:

  • Lethargy
  • Coughing
  • Weight loss
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Tiring easily

Cats with heartworms often show no signs at all until sudden death occurs. Those who show signs may exhibit:

  • Coughing
  • Vomiting
  • Difficulty breathing

There is no treatment available for cats with heartworm disease, and the treatment for heartworms in dogs is costly, time-intensive, and can still result in sudden death. But, while it may be difficult or impossible to treat, heartworm disease is easy to prevent.

Preventing heartworm disease

The first step in protecting your pet from heartworm disease is a simple blood test. Our veterinary team will confirm your pet is free from heartworms before placing him on a heartworm preventive medication.

Heartworm preventive medications, which typically come in the form of a monthly chew, are well-tolerated by pets. To adequately protect your pet from heartworm disease, consistency is key. Give your pet his preventive on the same day each month, otherwise he will be susceptible to the disease.

Once your pet begins his heartworm preventive and is taking it regularly, we will perform heartworm tests annually at his regular wellness visits to confirm the preventive is working.

Is your pet on a regular heartworm preventative? Don’t let him be a victim of this devastating disease. Call us at 704-892-1992 to schedule an appointment to ensure your pet is protected.