Frequently Asked Questions About Heartworms

How Do Pets Get Heartworms?

As pet owners, we play a crucial role in protecting our furry friends from heartworms. These parasites can only be transmitted through the bite of an infected mosquito. Mosquitoes acquire heartworm larvae when they feed on an infected animal, such as a cat, dog, or ferret, or even wild animals like wolves, foxes, and coyotes. The larvae mature inside the mosquito and are passed on to a new host when the mosquito bites again. By understanding this process, we can take steps to prevent heartworms in our pets.

Can Cats Get Heartworm?

Cats are at risk of getting heartworm from an infected mosquito bite. Although cats are not natural hosts for heartworms, and the parasites are less likely to mature and multiply as they do in dogs, even one or two adult heartworms can significantly harm a cat's health. Keeping cats indoors only partially protects them since mosquitoes can enter homes. About one-third of cats with heartworm disease are indoor cats. Since cats cannot be treated for heartworms, it is nessasary to take preventive measures to protect their health.

Are Heartworms Contagious?

Heartworms are not directly contagious. They can only be transmitted through mosquito bites and not spread from pet to pet by contact, coughing, or consuming infected meat. Heartworms also cannot be passed from a mother to her offspring. Therefore, a heartworm-positive pet does not need to be isolated. However, other pets are still at risk of contracting heartworms from mosquito bites.

How Do Heartworm Preventatives Work?

Heartworm preventatives do not stop mosquitoes from transferring heartworm larvae to your pet. Instead, these medications eliminate any larvae that have entered the bloodstream within the past 30 days, preventing them from developing into adult worms. Since the medication does not stay in the bloodstream or affect new larvae, giving it to your pet regularly is crucial.

Many heartworm preventatives also treat other parasites, both external and internal, making pet healthcare more convenient and cost-effective. Everyday products like Advantage Multi and Revolution protect against fleas, intestinal worms, and mites.

Is Heartworm Testing Necessary Before Starting Preventatives?

Yes, testing for heartworm is necessary before starting preventatives. Before they mature, these medications eliminate microscopic larvae (microfilariae) but do not kill adult heartworms. Giving preventatives to a heartworm-positive animal, especially dogs, can trigger an anaphylactic reaction, potentially leading to sudden death. Therefore, it is crucial to test for heartworms first.

My Cat /Dog Is On Heartworm Medication – Do They Still Need Testing?

Even if your pet is on monthly heartworm medication, your vet still recommends regular testing. Your dog or cat might spit out or vomit tablets or chewables or rub off topical treatments. While heartworm preventatives offer the best protection, no method is 100% effective. Regular testing ensures your pet remains healthy and heartworm-free.

Are Puppies And Kittens Immune To Heartworm?

No, puppies and kittens are as vulnerable to heartworm infection as adult animals. Mothers cannot pass on immunity or the effects of heartworm preventatives through nursing. It is essential to start puppies and kittens on regular heartworm medications as soon as they reach the recommended age for the specific medication and no later than eight weeks old. Animals younger than six months do not need prior testing since heartworms take six months to develop. Many medications, like Revolution, are safe for pets as young as 6-8 weeks.

When Should My Pet Start Heartworm Medication?

Puppies and kittens should begin heartworm preventatives by eight weeks of age or earlier if the specific product allows. Pets under six months old can start preventive medication without prior heartworm testing.

Be aware that some combination medications, even if they contain a heartworm preventative, may not be suitable for young animals. Always read the product information carefully and consult your vet for any concerns.

What Should I Do If I Miss A Dose?

Maintaining a regular dosing schedule for heartworm medication is essential for its effectiveness. If you miss a dose by less than a week, give it as soon as possible and continue with the regular schedule. If the dose is more than a week late, consult your vet. Administering heartworm preventatives to an infected pet, particularly dogs, can be risky. Your vet may recommend resuming the medication and scheduling a heartworm test depending on how late the dose is.

Is there a vaccine for heartworm?

There is no vaccine to protect against heartworm. The only way to prevent heartworm disease is by giving your dog or cat regular preventative medication. If you stop this medication, your pet will no longer be protected. Preventatives are usually available as topical or oral applications given monthly. In some countries, dogs can also receive a 6-month or 12-month injection.

What Are The Symptoms Of Heartworm?

In dogs, symptoms depend on the number and size of adult heartworms. Early signs include coughing, weight loss and lethargy. As the disease progresses, dogs may develop breathing problems and fainting.

Though less likely to show symptoms, cats can be severely affected by just one or two heartworms. Symptoms in cats include vomiting, breathing problems, lethargy, and loss of appetite.

It's important to note that dogs and cats can be asymptomatic in the early stages of heartworm. This is why regular testing is essential, even if your pet is on preventative medication.

Can Heartworm Disease Be Treated?

Yes, heartworm disease can be treated in dogs, but the process is complex, costly, and potentially risky. Treatment involves a series of injections administered by your vet over several months to kill adult heartworms. As the worms die and break down, they can cause blockages in the blood vessels, so your dog must be restricted from excessive movement. Your vet might also recommend additional treatments to alleviate the symptoms.

There is no effective treatment available for cats because the drugs used for dogs are unsafe for them. Instead, treatment focuses on managing the symptoms and keeping the cat healthy until the heartworms die naturally, which can take 2-4 years. During this period, your vet may prescribe steroids to reduce inflammation in the heart and lungs, medications for breathing difficulties, and provide general supportive care.

Can Humans Get Heartworm?

Although humans get bitten by mosquitoes just as often as animals, they are not natural heartworm hosts. The larvae rarely enter the bloodstream, even if an infected mosquito bites someone. In the rare instances that they do, the larvae do not mature into adult worms and do not cause the same health problems seen in dogs or cats.

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