Heartworm Disease in Maryland
What is Heartworm
Heartworm disease is an
infestation of a petís heart and blood vessels by long, thin worms. The
scientific name for the heartworm is Dirofilaria immitis. A single
worm can grow up to 14 inches long.
Heartworms cause damage to
the arteries of the heart, the lungs, the heart itself and other organs.
Left untreated, heartworm disease is usually fatal. Dogs are the most common
pets affected by the disease, although it is possible for cats or even
ferrets to get heartworm disease as well.
How are heartworms
The cycle begins when a
mosquito feeds on an infected dog and picks up immature heartworms that are
circulating in the dogís blood. Over the next two to three weeks, these
develop into infective larvae inside the mosquito. When the mosquito bites
another pet, it injects the larvae into the pet's bloodstream. The larvae grow
into adult heartworms within six months.
It only takes one infected mosquito to land on
and infect a vulnerable dog or cat, so even if your pet is indoors 100
percent of the time, it is still at risk from a mosquito that comes in an
open door or break in a window screen.
How prevalent is the
disease in Maryland?
Heartworm disease is a
threat to dogs and cats nationwide. In Maryland, it is found in every
county, especially in marshy areas along rivers and streams. It is
particularly heavy on the Eastern Shore, in Southern Maryland and in the
counties surrounding Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
Infection rates of
unprotected dogs have been reported to be as high as 45 percent in areas up
to 150 miles inland from the Atlantic Coast. Even small bodies of standing
water, such as hubcaps, empty cans, tires and flower pots can increase the
risk of heartworm disease in pets by giving mosquitoes a home.
Is heartworm disease
as easy as giving your pet a tasty treat or pill, or applying a liquid to
the back of its neck once a month. Before your
dog begins a preventative program, however, it must be tested to make sure
it does not already have heartworms. Giving an infected dog a preventative
pill can cause problems. Once your dog is diagnosed heartworm free, your
veterinarian will prescribe one of several heartworm preventatives.
preventatives are strong medications, they can be purchased only from a
veterinarian or by prescription.
How can I tell if my pet
has heartworm disease?
Signs of heartworm disease
in pets include a chronic cough, loss of energy, weight loss and loss of
appetite. In cats, vomiting can be an early sign of infection. Most
heartworm-infected pets have no symptoms at all until the disease is well
advanced and the heart and lungs have already been damaged.
To test for heartworm
disease, your veterinarian must collect a small sample of blood from your
pet. The blood test can often be completed in your veterinarianís office,
giving results as quickly as a few minutes.
disease in cats can also mimic the signs of feline asthma and can have
serious effects on the lungs. Sometimes the first sign that a cat is
infected with heartworm is sudden death. Diagnosis of heartworm disease
in cats is more difficult than in dogs. Your veterinarian may run
laboratory tests, x-rays, or an ultrasound of the heart to look for
signs of heartworms.
Can infected pets be
Treatment of early infection in dogs is safer
than waiting for the disease to progress, but it is not without risk. When
the worms have already done damage to the heart, lungs or other organs,
however, treatment is more risky. Regardless of the stage of the disease,
there is the potential for serious complications including death.
There is no safe and effective treatment for
heartworms in cats. Your veterinarian may recommend using medication to
protect the lungs while waiting for the heartworms to die on their own.
Any heartworm infection
poses a serious health risk to your pet. Prevention is always a better
choice than treatment.