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Heartworm: A Vet Discusses This DEADLY Parasite

When someone (dog daycare, vet, training facility, etc.) asks you about flea control, they almost always follow up with “What about heartworm prevention?” But, if you are like me, no one has ever really explained what exactly this heartworm is, what to watch for, and what the dangers are. So, Dr. Jules Benson, VP of Veterinary Services at Petplan Pet Insurance answered a few of the most important questions about this Deadly parasite.

What exactly is a heartworm and why is it so dangerous?

Dr. Benson: A heartworm is a parasitic worm that takes up residence in the heart and surrounding arteries. Adult heartworms can reach lengths of up to 14 inches, and dogs with severe cases can be living with more than 100 worms! A heartworm infection can be life threatening – if the worm burden climbs high enough, the worms in the heart cause a decrease in the functional capacity of the heart chambers, leading to heart failure.

Does a dog show any symptoms when they have one?

Dr. Benson: Dogs don’t initially show symptoms, but as the disease progresses you may notice:

  • A new-found intolerance of exercise
  • A mild but persistent cough

In more severe cases, you may notice:

  • Persistent coughing
  • Weakness
  • Trouble breathing

Your veterinarian can check for heartworms with a simple blood test – and many dogs have this done at the annual wellness visit.

A simple blood test can tell you if your dog has heartworm
A simple blood test can tell you if your dog has heartworm

I have heard your dog needs to be tested before being put on medication, because if it has a heartworm already, it will kill the dog – is that true and if so why?

Dr. Benson: If your dog has been off heartworm medicine it is important to schedule a blood test to confirm that he’s not infected before beginning monthly doses of heartworm preventatives.

If your pup is heartworm positive, the preventative medicine may not be safe or effective in treating the existing worms – but take heart; that treatment is available. Your veterinarian can administer a series of injections over the course of a month that will slowly kill the adult worms. At the same time, the dog will also be given medicine to kill the microfilaria (baby worms).

This staged treatment plan is necessary because dead and dying worms can cause pulmonary thromboembolism, blocking blood vessels to the lungs, and can potentially be fatal.

Vets in my area tell me we don’t need to worry about heartworms in SoCal – is that true? If so, are there places where they are not as big of a risk?

Dr. Benson: Because heartworms are spread by mosquitos, more cases are found in the southeast along the Gulf Coast and Mississippi river – but cases have been found in all 50 states. The good news is that heartworm disease can be prevented with a simple, monthly dose of heartworm medicine. No matter where you live, it’s best to keep your dog on a heartworm preventative – especially knowing how serious the disease can be.

Now that you know, be sure to ask your vet next time you are in to make sure you are doing the correct things to prevent your dog from contracting a deadly heartworm. If you just rescued a dog, it’s a good idea to ask the rescue if they tested for heartworm and if not, to have him tested as soon as possible, just in case. When the prevention is as simple as once a month, there is no reason to risk your dog’s life.

About the Author

Based in Tustin, Calif., animal lover Kristina N. Lotz is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer – Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA) and works as a full time trainer. She also owns her own custom pet products company, A Fairytail House, where she makes personalized collars, leashes, beds, keepsake pillows and blankets, and anything else your imagine can think up. In her spare time, she trains and competes in herding, agility, obedience, rally, and conformation with her Shetland Sheepdogs.

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Written by Kristina Lotz
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