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Heartworm Symptoms & Treatment: What You Need to Know

By Heather Burdo

Heartworm in dogs and cats

Heartworm is serious and can be potentially deadly to both dogs and cats. Education and awareness about this disease are crucial for the sake of your pet’s health.

What is heartworm?

Heartworm is a dangerous disease that occurs in pets around the United States and several other parts of the world. This disease occurs when foot-long worms, known as heartworms, take up residence in the blood vessels, lungs, and heart of pets. Due to where the heartworm lives, it causes heart failure, severe lung disease, and damage to other organs in the body. Heartworm can present itself differently in dogs than in cats.

Heartworm in Dogs

Dogs are natural hosts for heartworms, and the parasite lives inside the dog as it matures into an adult. It then mates and produces offspring. If heartworm is left untreated, heartworms will multiply. Dogs have been known to harbor hundreds of worms in their body at once.

Heartworm in Cats

Cats are what is known as an atypical host for heartworm. Thankfully, heartworm doesn’t survive into the adult stage in cats. Although heartworm doesn’t last as long in cats, they can still harbor at least 2-3 worms at one time. Unfortunately, heartworm is not diagnosed as often in cats, but they can still reap the significant damage from the disease, such as heartworm-associated respiratory disease (HARD). Symptoms of HARD can include coughing, lethargy, difficulty breathing, decreased appetite, rapid heart rate, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Symptoms of Heartworm in Dogs and Cats

Making yourself aware of the symptoms of heartworm can allow you to recognize symptoms earlier. The earlier your pet is treated, the better the outcome will be.

Symptoms of heartworm in dogs:

  • Weight loss
  • Coughing
  • Intolerance to physical activity
  • Fainting
  • Adema

Symptoms of heartworm in cats:

  • Coughing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Lethargy
  • Weight loss
  • Vomiting

Heartworm Treatment for Dogs

If heartworm disease is detected early on, it can be treated before severe, permanent damage occurs. If the disease has been present for an extended period of time, complications could arise.

The priority when treating heartworm in dogs is to remove all life stages of the heartworm including larvae, adult, and the microfilariae. A veterinarian will need to conduct tests to conclude which stages are present in your dog and how much damage is done. Once testing is done, the veterinarian will administer the proper treatment. You will likely need follow-up testing to make sure the treatment worked to clear the heartworm. It’s not uncommon for a dog to need treatment more than once to be completely heartworm-free.

Heartworm Treatment for Cats

Cats are a bit different - no medical treatment is approved for heartworm disease. However, a veterinarian can share the best ways to monitor your cat and recognize the signs of this disease. Medications, steroids, and antibiotics are sometimes needed. Hospitalization is also a possibility for cats who have severe breathing issues or other complications. Surgical removal of worms may be needed, but there are risks so you would need to talk this over with your veterinarian.

Keep Up to Date on Preventatives

To keep your pet heartworm-free and protect them from this serious disease, prevention is key. Over-the-counter medications are available to prevent heartworm disease in both cats and dogs. There is even an oral chewable that your pet can take just once and it goes to work to prevent any heartworm infestation. An additional benefit to heartworm preventatives is that they can also control whipworms, hookworms, roundworms, mites, and ticks, depending on the product you choose.

While you can't predict when your pet is going to get sick or injured, you can protect yourself from expensive veterinary bills. Embrace Pet Insurance gives you the freedom to do what’s best for your pet without stressing over the cost. Easily personalize your coverage to fit your budget and your pet’s needs, then visit any vet for nose-to-tail coverage. Check out what the Embrace plan covers or compare pet insurance providers to learn more.

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