How Dangerous Is Heartworm to Cats and Dogs?

Heartworm disease—caused by foot-long worms that live in the heart, lungs and associated blood vessels of affected pets—is a serious and potentially fatal disease in pets in the U.S. and many other parts of the world. It can cause severe lung disease, heart failure and damage to other organs in your pet’s body. This disease has been known to affect dogs, cats and ferrets, but heartworms also live in other mammal species, including wolves, coyotes, foxes, seat lions and—in rare instances—humans. Because wild foxes and coyotes have been known to live in close proximity to many urban areas, they’re considered important carriers of the disease.

Prevent Heartworm In Cats & Dogs - Nashville TN

Heartworms and Your Cat

Basic Information

Cats are what many would call atypical hosts for heartworms, with most worms not even surviving to the adult stage. It’s important to understand that even immature worms can cause real damage in the form of a condition known as heartworm associated respiratory disease (HARD). Cats with heartworms that actually do survive to the adult stage typically have no more than three (3) worms; many cats affected by heartworms have no adult worms at all. Because of this, heartworm disease in cats often goes undiagnosed. Moreover, the medication used to treat heartworm infections in dogs can’t be used in cats; as such, prevention is the only means of protecting cats from the effects of heartworm disease.

Warning Signs

The signs of heartworm disease in cats can range from very subtle to very dramatic. Symptoms may include:

  •  Coughing
  • Asthma-like attacks
  • Periodic vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss

Occasionally an affected feline may have a hard time walking, experience fainting or seizures, or suffer from a buildup of fluid in the abdomen. Unfortunately, the first sing in some cases is a sudden collapse of the cat, or sudden death.

Heartworms and Your Dog

Basic Information

Unlike their feline counterparts, dogs are natural hosts for heartworms, meaning that the heartworms that live inside the dog mature into adults, mate and produce offspring. If left untreated, their numbers can increase dramatically (dogs have been known to harbor several hundred worms in their bodies). Heartworm disease can cause lasting damage to the heart, lungs and arteries, and can affect the dog’s health and quality of life long after these parasites are gone. It is for this very reason that prevention is, by far, the best option, and treatment—when necessary—should be administered as early in the course of the disease as possible.

Warning Signs

In the early stages of the disease, many dogs show few symptoms; some show no symptoms at all. The longer the infection is left untreated, the more likely symptoms will develop. Active dogs, dogs that are heavily infected with heartworms, or those with other health problems often show more advanced and noticeable signs of the disease. Symptoms may include:

  • A mild, persistent cough
  • Reluctance to exercise
  • Fatigue after moderate activity
  • Decreased appetite
  • Weight loss

As the disease progresses, dogs may develop heart failure and the appearance of a swollen stomach due to the buildup of excess fluid. Dogs with larger numbers of heartworms can develop sudden blood flow blockages within the heart, ultimately leading to cardiovascular collapse (known as caval syndrome). Without prompt surgical removal of the heartworm blockage, few dogs survive.

Heartworm disease is a serious, progressive disease. The earlier it’s detected, the better the chances your pet will recover. There are few, if any, early signs of disease when a dog or cat is infected, so detecting their presence with a heartworm test administered by your vet is of the utmost importance. At 5 Points Animal Hospital, our well-equipped, in-house lab allows us to run a variety of diagnostic tests with results available in less than 30 minutes. This allows us to act quicker if heartworms are a problem for your pet.

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