As a caring and compassionate owner, you will be committed to doing everything in your power to ensure that your canine companion remains healthy and lives a long and happy life. Sadly, pet ownership comes with one challenge that is particularly difficult to overcome – your dog’s inability to verbalize if he is unwell. Canines, like all animals, are unable to speak and tell us how they are feeling. As such, they are entirely reliant on us as their owner to both pick up on and correctly identify behaviors that might indicate that something is amiss.
Prompt diagnosis can help to ensure that your furbaby gets the treatment that he needs quickly, before the illness can cause further damage or in some cases, put the life of your dg at risk. Unfortunately, some conditions are harder to spot than others. One that is particularly tricky to diagnose is heartworms.
What are heartworms and how do dogs catch them?
Heartworms are a deadly yet preventable parasitic infection that affects dogs across the United States of America. The worms first enter your dog as larvae, known as microfilariae, through a bite from an infected mosquito. However, they quickly migrate to the blood vessels in your dog’s heart and lungs and if not destroyed, mature into adult worms.
Once they reach adulthood the worms become capable of producing offspring, which eventually adds to the number of parasites in your dog’s body. It is not unheard of for a dog to have up to 200 adult heartworms in his heart and lungs, each anywhere up to 12 inches in length. Worms have a lifespan of between 5 and 7 years.
The effect of heartworms on your dog’s body
Although microfilariae have very little impact on the health of your pet, once the worms reach adulthood, they can cause your dog to experience a range of problems. One of the most obvious is that they clog up the heart and lungs. Each adult heartworm can be 6 to 12 inches long, and when they accumulate, their twisted and intertwined mass can cause damage to the pulmonary arteries in the heart and obstruct the regular flow of blood around the body.
Another problem posed by heartworms is an allergic-type reaction to microorganisms found within the worms themselves. Although rare, the effects of this reaction can be very fast and life-threatening. If your pet’s immune system goes into overdrive, extra antibodies can enter his bloodstream and cause inflammation and tissue damage.
In some instances where a dog has severe heartworm, something called Caval Syndrome, or Vena Cava Syndrome, may occur. This is characterized by a very large number of adult worms (100 or more) suddenly invading the heart and completely blocking the blood flow. Effects are almost instant and devastating. Shock, collapse and normally death tend to occur within 48 hours.
Signs that your dog has heartworms
By far the biggest challenge associated with heartworms is the difficulty in diagnosing them early on in the disease. The reason for this is that it can take some time for symptoms to become apparent, and early indicators of the condition are very mild and easy to attribute to another illness or to overlook entirely.
Nevertheless, as early diagnosis is crucial if your pet is to make a full recovery from the condition, it is important to know what behaviors may suggest that your canine companion is battling heartworm disease. These include:
- Coughing. A soft, mild, dry cough is common in the early stages of a heartworm infection.
- Fatigue. Your dog may appear more tired than usual after exercise, or you may struggle to motivate her to engage in physical activity. You may also notice that her cough gets worse after exercise.
- Difficulty breathing. As the infection spreads to your canine’s bloodstream, she may find it difficult to catch her breath.
- Lack of appetite and weight loss. This tends to happen in the latter stages of a heartworm infection.
- Collapse/unconsciousness. Eventually, the accumulation of worms becomes so great that blood flow becomes compromised. This can cause the destruction of red blood cells, leading to your furbaby collapsing or becoming unconscious.
Although heartworms predominantly accumulate in the blood vessels of your dog’s heart and lungs, in some instances they may migrate to other parts of the body. Often this tends to be the brain, and if this happens, your canine companion may also experience blindness, lameness and seizures.
If you are even remotely concerned that your dog may have contracted heartworms, it is essential that you seek professional advice as soon as possible. A simple blood test may be able to identify if your pet has been infected, and the sooner treatment is started, the more likely your animal is to make a full recovery and to go on and live a full and happy life.
Our team of knowledgeable professionals has extensive experience in both the identification and treatment of various infectious diseases in dogs, including heartworms. To find out more about heartworms, or to arrange a consultation for your pet, please call our Heartland Animal Hospital office at (864) 383-0600 or visit our vet office in Boiling Springs.