Getting to the heart of pet-parasite prevention

Sunday Signal
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Pets rely on their owners to look out for their physical well-being. Many serious health issues that can afflict pets, and parasites are a common cause of illness and discomfort. 

Of all the parasitic worms dogs, cats and other companion animals may acquire, heartworms may be the most concerning.

Heartworm disease can result in lung and heart failure, other organ damage, and potentially death.

Heartworm disease is caused by a blood-borne parasite known as Dirofilariaimmitis, according to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration. It is spread through the bite of a mosquito.

Dogs are often the host of choice. The parasites infect the dog, mature into adults, mate and produce offspring all while living inside the animal. Cats are atypical hosts for heartworms, and most worms in cats do not survive the adult stage.

While heartworm infection has been reported in all 50 states, it is most common along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Heartworms also can occur in the warmer regions of Canada where summer temperatures are high enough for the worm larvae to survive inside carrier mosquitoes.

While California was once thought exempt from heartworms, that is no longer the case. According to the County of Los Angeles Veterinary Public Health, between 2009-2018, veterinarians reported 521 cases — 30 in cats and 490 in dogs.

Once inside a new host, it takes approximately six months for the larvae to develop into sexually mature adult heartworms, advises The American Heartworm Society. Once mature, heartworms can survive five to seven years in dogs and up to two to three years in cats. Each mosquito season can increase the number of worms in infected pets.

Prevention is key to ensuring the health of a pet. Adult heartworms can infect the heart, pulmonary artery and adjacent large blood vessels. A blood test can reveal whether a pet is affected by heartworms, as early infection may not yield noticeable symptoms.

Apart from keeping pets away from mosquito-heavy areas, pet owners will find that annual heartworm testing as well as monthly prevention medications can provide the protection needed to keep animals safe. Heartworm preventives must be purchased from a veterinarian or with a prescription through a pet pharmacy in the United States. Check requirements for those living in Canada.

The FDA warns that the treatment for heartworm disease is not easy on the dog and it is costly. Treatment can be potentially toxic to the dog’s body and can cause serious complications, such as the development of life-threatening blood clots in the dog’s lungs. Preventive medicines can reduce pets’ risk of developing heartworm. (MC)

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