As a veterinarian Raleigh trusts, we here at Leesville Animal Hospital take our responsibility of educating our clients about preventative care very seriously.
You may recall a few days ago we posted a little bit about preventative care for your pet and what it means. One of the subjects we touched on lightly was that of monthly preventatives like heartworm prevention. Today we’re going to take a closer look at heartworm disease but in a light that many pet owners don’t consider – we’re going to talk about how heartworm disease affects your cat.
Answers From a Veterinarian Raleigh Trusts: What is Heartworm Disease?
Let’s begin by doing a quick refresher on what heartworm disease is. As a pet owner, you are probably already familiar with the disease, but in case you aren’t, here are the basics you need to know…
- A parasitic worm known as Dirofilaria immitis is the worm we are referring to when we talk about “heart-worm”.
- The microfilariae (offspring) of the worm are carried by mosquitoes.
- Over a period of 10 to 30 days, if conditions are suitable, the microfilariae develop into infective larvae while living inside the mosquito’s gut. Once developed, the larvae then travel to the mosquito’s mouthpiece.
- The mosquito carrying the infective larvae of the Dirofilaria immitis worm then bites an animal to feed and while they feed on the animal’s blood, they allow the infective larvae to pass under the animal’s skin. Over the next few weeks, the larvae find their way into the animal’s bloodstream. Most people refer to dogs when they’re talking about this process because it is quite common for dogs to develop heartworm disease.
- The mosquito then flies away, leaving the heartworm larvae to mature inside the dog’s body.
- Over a period of 6 to 7 months, the larvae mature into adult heartworms. The adult worms make themselves at home inside the heart and lungs (and the correlating blood vessels) of the infected dog where they mature to their adult size and mate. The female worm then releases microfilariae (offspring) into the dog’s bloodstream. One of the ways that heartworm disease can be detected is through a blood test that identifies the presence of these microfilariae in the bloodstream. The second way to test for heartworm is a blood test that detects heartworm antigen proteins released by the female heartworm into the dog’s bloodstream.
- A mosquito then comes along and bites this dog and as they feed, they ingest the microfilariae from the dog’s bloodstream and the cycle begins again.
- While the new generation of heartworms take flight with the newly infected mosquito, the adult worms inside the dog’s heart, lungs and correlating blood vessels set up camp where they can live for an average of 5 to 7 years!
What Happens to the Adult Worms Inside the Infected “Host”?
In the above example, we referred to a dog as the “host” animal for the adult Dirofilaria immitis worm. What happens to these adult worms once they have taken up residence inside the heart, lungs, and associated blood vessels, though?
The average infected dog carries around 15 adult worms with the males measuring between 4 and 6 inches long and the females measuring between 10 to 12 inches long. There are some dogs that have carried up to 250 worms, however. As you can imagine, carrying these adult worms takes a toll on the dog’s health. The worms don’t just congest the organs and make it more difficult for them to function, but they can also interfere with the ability of these organs to function for example, by clogging valves in the heart and reducing the amount of blood flow. In turn, this begins to affect other bodily systems by slowing circulation. The longer these adult worms remain in the dog’s body, the longer the dog’s organs are having to work harder than normal to function at less than optimal functioning. Eventually, this causes a decline in the dog’s health and this is when symptoms begin to become noticeable.
How is Heartworm Disease Cured?
There are multiple approaches to treating heartworm disease, but they all involve poisoning the adult worms with medications that are either injected or taken orally. While these treatments are extremely effective at eliminating heartworms, they also pose health risks to the infected host. Most importantly, dogs being treated for heartworm disease must be kept calm because as the worms are poisoned, they die and begin to decompose. The fragments of the adult worm travel to the lungs where they are eventually reabsorbed into the body. During the period when the fragments of the worm are lodged inside the lungs, however, they can cause serious complications that will worsen with increased excitement or physical activity of the dog.
So…What About Your Cat?
We know, it’s an article about cats and we haven’t mentioned your cat once! But now that you have an understanding of how heartworm disease “works”, let’s talk about your cat.
Cats CAN contract heartworm disease even if they are “indoor cats”. BUT, the cat’s body is a less hospitable host to the Dirofilaria immitis worm, so most worms that are hosted by cats do not survive to maturity. The average lifespan of the heartworm inside a cat is just 2 to 4 years, the worms also tend not to grow to as long, and because fewer adult worms survive, the heartworm “load” found inside the cat’s body is much lower (usually 1 or 2 worms). Unfortunately, because the cat’s anatomy is smaller than that of most dogs, even a few worms can cause significant complications to their health.
The Dirofilaria immitis microfilariae take approximately 7 to 8 months to mature inside the feline anatomy and only a few worms survive. The survival of few worms and fewer microfilariae being detectable in a cats bloodstream makes it difficult to detect heartworm disease in cats. Often it requires multiple blood tests and symptom analysis to determine that a cat is suffering from heartworm disease.
How Are Cats Treated for Heartworm Disease?
The medications used to treat heartworm infestations in dogs cannot be used to treat the same disease in cats because dead heartworms release toxins into the cat’s system that can cause severe lung damage or sudden death. Unfortunately, there is no current treatment for feline heartworm infestation, so the treatment of heartworm in cats is limited to symptom management or in a very few cases, surgical removal of the worms which carries its own set of risks. With proper symptom management and a long-term health management plan, a cat’s heartworm infestation may resolve by itself, but it is still possible for complications or even death to occur as a result of infestation.
A Veterinarian Raleigh Trusts Highlights the Importance of Prevention!
It is obvious that in both cats and dogs, regular administration of heartworm prevention treatment is the best approach to heartworm disease. Preventing any microfilariae from maturing with a trusted heartworm preventative will stop heartworm disease in its tracks so that no adult worms survive to cause havoc in your pet’s system.
Need to pick up a heartworm preventative refill for your pet? Drop by and see us at Leesville Animal Hospital and we’ll get you taken care of! Just don’t procrastinate because the longer your pet goes without their heartworm prevention, the more at risk they are for developing the disease!
Call us today at (919) 870-7000!