OPINION: Pet Talk: Heartworm, the silent killer

Wednesday 9 June 2021 | Written by Dr. Ellen McBryde | Published in Editorials, Opinion


OPINION: Pet Talk: Heartworm, the silent killer
PHOTO: CI NEWS. 18010110

Heartworm disease is a major health issue for dogs in the Cook Islands, but many pet owners remain unaware of its existence and severity. Dr Ellen McBryde explains.

First things first - what is it?

Heartworm disease is spread by mosquitoes, making it nearly impossible to avoid.

Adult worms living in the heart and lungs of an infected dog produce teeny tiny baby worms (called microfilaria) that circulate in the bloodstream.

When a mosquito bites an infected dog, these worms are ingested. Over the next two weeks they develop inside the mosquito - only then does the mosquito become infectious to other dogs.

It takes at least six months for adult worms to develop in a newly infected dog, and for this cycle to continue.

How do you know if your dog is infected? The testing available for heartworm disease detects adult female worms, meaning an infection can only test positive after at least six months.

Early in the disease an infected dog may appear normal, or only show very mild signs. These become more obvious the longer an infection persists.

The most common signs are a soft cough, exercise intolerance or fatigue, reduced appetite and weight loss.

Severe or advanced heartworm disease leads to heart failure (due to the worms living in the heart and lungs) - a large fluid-filled belly and severe exercise intolerance.

Did you know – an infected dog can have hundreds of heartworms living in its heart and lungs.

If your dog is diagnosed with heartworm disease, treatment may be possible.

However it is a long and expensive process that comes with its own risks. Like with so many illnesses, prevention really is better than cure.

Many pet owners now understand the importance of giving worming tablets and flea preventions to their dogs and cats.

Unfortunately, these treatments often do not contain the right ingredients to prevent heartworm disease, or must be given every month for effective protection against this nasty parasite.

This means most dogs remain unprotected and vulnerable to infection.

Fortunately, there is an injectable preventative available that can be given yearly to protect your dog against heartworm disease - so we don’t have to worry about missing a monthly dose!

Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about cats! Heartworm disease is just far less common in these guys as the worms rarely develop to the adult stage.

Not only is testing for the disease more difficult, the treatment and yearly prevention medications are only available for dogs.

So monthly prevention is still your best option for avoiding heartworm infection in cats.


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