Heartworm disease is a serious and potentially fatal disease caused by a long whitish worm, which lives in the circulatory system (primarily in the right side of the heart and the large blood vessels going to the lungs). The adult worms can be up to 14 inches in length! This is not a new disease to veterinary medicine, as say AIDS was in human medicine, rather it has been around for many years. However, it has always been a regional problem. In the early 1970's the disease was only in Florida and the Southern United States. By the late 70's the problem had spread throughout the Midwest and now in the 90's the disease is threatening California. The spread is largely due to the movement of people (and their pets) from the affected areas. We do not have an epidemic in California but the disease has started to "pop up" in certain areas.
A pet (usually dogs) with early heartworm disease may not appear ill. In advanced stages the disease can cause the pet to have difficulty breathing, tire easily, cough, be listless, experience weight loss, or faint. The disease can also affect the liver, kidneys, and brain. The important fact is that serious damage can occur before symptoms are apparent. The pet can also carry heartworm for several years before illness develops.
HOW DOES AN ANIMAL GET HEARTWORM?
The mosquito is the only natural way that a pet can get heartworm. Many different types of mosquitoes can transfer young heartworm (microfilaria) after having bitten an infected pet. The microfilaria incubates in the mosquito for 2 weeks where they reach the "infective" stage. These infective microfilaria are then passed into the healthy pet when he/she is bitten by the mosquito. Anywhere there are mosquitoes the danger of heartworm infection exists and these mosquitoes do exist in California!!
CAN THE DISEASE BE DIAGNOSED BEFORE THE PET SHOWS SYMPTOMS?
Heartworm infection can be detected through a simple blood test. The blood is examined under the microscope for the small, immature microfilaria. This test can be performed as an outpatient without the need for a doctor's examination. If the test is positive we will set up an appointment so that the doctor can discuss the treatment and prognosis with you.
HEARTWORM CAN BE PREVENTED!
There are safe medications that can be used on a regular (monthly) basis to prevent the devastating effects of heartworm infection. As long as the "once-a-month" pills are given your dog will be protected.