Heartworm infection in dogs is unfortunately very common throughout the entire United States. The first case of heartworm infection was diagnosed in the 19th century, and since then that number has steadily risen. Even with the ever-increasing supply of heartworm medications, there seems to be no stopping the spread of this potentially fatal disease.
Although heartworm disease in dogs is very common (with one out of every 200 dogs contracting heartworms), luckily there are numerous treatment options (as well as prevention methods). Most of the recent developments in veterinary science have been centered around prevention tactics.
Whether you’re wondering how to protect your pup from heartworms, or you need to know what your treatment options are (if your dog is already infected), we have you covered. In the following sections, we go into detail about everything you could possibly want to know about heartworms in dogs.
What Exactly Are Heartworms?
Heartworms are a specific type of parasite (known in the scientific community as Dirofilaria immitis) that infect dogs through the bites of mosquitoes. Unfortunately for our furry little friends, dogs make the absolute perfect host animals for heartworms. These parasites can live their entire lives in dogs (including laying eggs/offspring – which only continues the cycle).
While dogs make the perfect hosts for heartworms, mosquitoes do not (they’re only considered intermediate hosts, because the heartworms essentially use them to be passed along to a more suitable host environment – i.e. dogs). Once an infected mosquito bites a dog, the parasites are passed into the dog’s bloodstream (and then work their way into its heart, lungs, and blood vessels).
Taking a Closer Look at Heartworms
There’s nothing pleasant about dealing with heartworms. If you’ve ever come across a picture of these parasites on the web you know exactly what I’m talking about. They can grow to reach pretty impressive lengths, and if a dog has an advanced infection, there can be countless of them living in its body.
When a dog becomes infected with heartworms, the parasites eventually end up producing their offspring (which are produced directly into the dog’s blood). This is the important part; if an infected dog is bitten by a mosquito, that parasite’s offspring is then transferred into the mosquito. You can guess what happens next – the mosquito bites another dog, which transfers the offspring, which then mature into adults, which then release more offspring (effectively repeating the cycle ad nauseam). Adolescent heartworms develop into adults in about six months.
Heartworms can live for over five years, with some even living up to seven years. This provides ample time for them to produce offspring (which is how advanced infections occur). Most people think of parasites as microscopic beings, however, heartworms are different from most in that they are quite visible to the naked eye (i.e. they can grow anywhere from 4 to 12 inches long).
The majority of dogs that have contracted heartworm disease have anywhere from 1 to 15 actual worms living inside of them. In advanced cases that number can be in the hundreds.
Treating Heartworm Disease in Dogs
As we’ve already mentioned, most modern treatment methods revolve around the prevention of heartworm disease. Preventative medications typically come in oral form (i.e. tablets/pills), such as Interceptor Plus chews for dogs.
These medications work by prohibiting the development of offspring (as well as killing any active worms). Many medications work against multiple parasites at once (e.g. heartworms, tapeworms, hookworms, etc.).
There are some side effects to anti-heartworm medications that should be considered before administering them to your dog. Most vets will provide you with an overview of possible side effects before prescribing a specific medication for your dog. However, it’s important to ask as many questions as possible about treating your dog’s heartworm, how you can prevent another infection, as well as whether or not your dog has any complications from their current infection.
Final Thoughts and Considerations
While heartworm disease is prevalent throughout the entire US, states in the southern portion of the country are particularly prone to the disease (due to the humid climate that’s highly suitable for mosquitoes).
The important thing to remember is that prevention should be your ultimate goal. Treatment after the fact is much harder to deal with (both from a health and financial standpoint). By using one of the many excellent prevention treatments available, you should be able to successfully protect your dog from contracting heartworm disease.