What is Heartworm Disease?
Heartworm disease can be fatal for your dog, and it is imperative to detect and treat it as early as possible. The major signs you should looks out for are a dry, soft cough; a lack of appetite; sudden lethargy; dramatic weight loss; and difficulty in breathing.
These are also symptoms of some other serious diseases, and you should always take your dog to a vet if your dog exhibits any of them.
Heartworm is a parasite that spreads through mosquito bites from one diseased dog to a healthy one. It’s a not a disease that can be transferred directly from dog to dog. Mosquitoes are an essential catalyst in turning these worms infective. Heartworm enter the blood stream of a dog, and over the period of several months, travel to her heart and lungs. There the female heartworm grows into adulthood and releases its offspring called microfilariae into the blood stream of the dog. When a mosquito bites the infected dog, it extracts these microfilariae along with the blood.
These microfilariae turn into infective larvae inside the mosquito over the next couple of weeks. Without this process inside the mosquito, the heartworm would never infect another dog. So, when this carrier mosquito bites an unprotected, healthy dog, the microfilariae enter her blood stream and begin their journey towards the heart and lungs.
Heartworm can grow up to a foot in length inside the dog’s bloodstream, and the average number of worms in an infected dog is 15. Heartworm can clog major blood vessels and interfere with the heart’s valve action. If the dog has been infected long enough, heartworm can lead to severe damage in the heart, lungs, and other major organs.
Test for Heartworm Diagnosis?
When a dog is suspected of having heartworm, the vet asks for a blood test. This tests the dog for certain proteins called antigen, released into the bloodstream by adult heartworm.
Unfortunately, the test only detects heartworm accurately if they are older than five months old. The blood sample is also examined under the microscope to detect microfilariae in the blood stream, which would indicate the presence of adult, female heartworm in the body.
Other necessary tests are Electrocardiogram to detect irregular heartbeats; radiographs or X-rays to look for swelling or enlargement of arteries in the heart; echocardiography to get a visual of the heart’s chambers and maybe even of the worms.
How to Prevent Heartworm in Dogs?
Dogs need to be put on life-long preventives to keep them safe from heartworm. Puppies under six months can be put on a preventive and then tested for heartworm six months later.
After a second test, another half year later, the dog is required to take yearly tests to be absolutely sure that she has not been infected. Treatment depends on early detection, so pet parents are advised to not skip these check-ups.
Because of the endemic nature of heartworm in the United States, any preventive measure requires complete compliance with the scheduled administration of the drugs.
Failing to take the required dose at the prescribed interval completely ruins the effectiveness of the preventive. If for some reason, you do miss a monthly dose, your vet will most likely have your dog tested immediately, and then restarted on preventives.
How to Cure Heartworm?
If heartworm is detected, vets first ensure that the dog’s health is stable and then use an injectable drug to kill the adult and immature heartworm in her body. This is both an expensive and difficult process.
The biggest risk to a dog during this procedure comes in the period immediately after the drug is introduced into the system. The adult heartworm begin to die and end up decomposing inside the blood vessels where they may cause bacterial infections.
Vets will strongly advise you to keep your dog inactive for a month after the first injection, since it’s critical to keep her condition stable and not overtax her body. A month after the adult worms are killed, the vet will then target the remaining microfilariae in the bloodstreams.
Six months after the completion of this process, your dog will take another test to confirm that she is now heartworm-free.
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