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April is heartworm awarness month. Heartworm is an insidious disease that has spred to virtually all parts of the U.S. since the early 1970s. It is spread only by mosquitoes; thus, areas heavily populated by these insects tend to have a greater incidence of heartworm disease. Both dogs and cats can be infected but it is more commonly seen in dogs. As its name implies, heartworm lives in the blood of a dog's or cat's heart and adjacent blood vessels. The adult heartworms living in the heart produce offspring, called microfilariae, which circulate in the infected animal's blood.
When a mosquito "bites" an infected pet, it sucks out blood containing the microfilariae. After two weeks in the mosquito, the microfilariae become infective larvae. This step is necessary for the transmission of heartworm. When the mosquito bites another pet, the infective larvae are transmitted.
Testing: Commom blood screening test can verify the presence of heartworms. Radiographs or x-ray films and other sophisticated laboratory tests are used to detect heartworm disease.
Canine heartworm disease symptoms include:
Rough hair coat
Although heartworm is seen less frequently in cats, the disease poses a much greater danger. The outcome is often fatal. There are no consistent clinical signs of heartworm in cats. Common clues include coughing and rapid breathing. Other signs include weight loss and vomiting. However, all of these signs are common in other diseases. Diagnosis is difficult for veterinarians and may include outside laboratory tests, radiographs, and ultrasound studies.
The good news is that there are heartworm prevention drugs available for cats. If you live in a heartworm infested area, or plan on visting a heartworm area with your cat, your veterinarian can prescribe a preventive medication. These drugs are given once monthly and are very effective in cats and kittens.