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What Dog Owners Should Know About Heartworm

Heartworm is a serious condition that could kill your dog. It’s caused by parasitic worms that colonize the heart and lungs, eventually building up to levels that can stop the heart completely. Advanced cases are difficult to treat and usually cause permanent damage, but that doesn’t mean that pet owners can’t do anything about heartworm. Simple preventive treatments can keep your pets healthy while saving your stress and money at the vet.

Heartworm Life Cycle
These parasites start out as tiny larvae deposited in a dog’s skin through mosquito bites. They can only survive in areas where the temperature is above 57 degrees Fahrenheit, so they are most common during the summer and in the American South.

Heartworms grow under the skin, then migrate into the chest muscles, where they move to live in the big veins of the lungs and the right side of the heart. Adult heartworms lay eggs that turn into more dormant larvae, waiting to be picked up by the next mosquito.

Signs of Heartworm Infection
Many dogs don’t show signs of an infection until well after serious damage has occurred. This is especially common in nonworking dogs that don’t get a lot of exercise. Eventually, dogs begin to develop a cough and tiredness, especially after they exercise. This advances to severe weight loss, sudden bouts of fainting and a severe, bloody cough. Eventually, the heart enlarges and fails completely.

Treating Heartworm
If a dog suffers from heartworm, vets can use strong treatments to kill the parasites. Treatment requires use of an arsenic-based poison that heartworms can’t resist. This medicine also weakens the dog, however, and can be dangerous for dogs with large infections. Some vets use large amounts of heartworm preventive medicine instead of arsenic, but this treatment is not as effective.

After the heartworms die, dogs must be kept from exercising too much. Otherwise, dead heartworms could travel to the lungs, causing suffocation, or block a blood vessel. In very advanced cases, the vet may surgically remove the worms from the heart before administering medication.

Prevention
Regular treatment with ivermectin, an anti-parasitic drug that also works against hookworms, roundworms andand other pests, can keep dogs from ever developing heartworm. Other preventive drugs include milbemycin and moxidectin, all of which work in more or less the same way. Have the vet give your dog an injection or topical application of medicine once every six months to a year to keep away infection. Monthly treatments are also available and can ensure that your dog stays happy and healthy.