How can a dog catch heartworm disease?

Heartworms are spread by mosquito bites, strictly by mosquito bites. That's the only way you can get them, but if mosquitoes bite a dog with heartworms, they take the larvae they got from an infected dog, the larva matures, and when they bite the next victim, they inject the larvae into the pet. Four to six months later, you have an adult worm living in the heart.

Gregory Lloyd
Hebron Animal Hospital

Can heartworm be prevented?

Very easily. There are two common methods of prevention. One is a monthly heartworm preventative. It's chewable and flavored, and dogs love it because they think it's a treat. There's also an injection for those dogs who don't take meds well or for people who might be a bit forgetful in giving them the pill every month. We can give an injection that lasts a whole year and acts as a very effective heartworm preventative.

What are the signs in my dog that may indicate they have heartworm disease?

If the disease goes so far as to cause symptoms, a chronic cough and weight loss are the first two signs.

What are some middle- to late-stage symptoms of heartworm disease?

Cardiovascular collapse would be a big one, and, again, severe weight loss, cough, and exercise intolerance. That would be the concern there. Most of the time, we try to catch the disease very early, so we insist on testing a dog every single year. If you test a dog for heartworms every year and they test positive, that gives us an opportunity to go ahead and treat the dog before there is any damage to their heart and lungs. If it's missed and it goes on for a considerable period of time, sometimes that damage can be permanent, and even treating the dog for heartworms, we'll never restore them to their original health.

How soon should I bring my dog in to see a veterinarian for heartworm prevention?

If your dog's not on prevention, I recommend that you get them on it right away. It's spread by mosquito bites, and in this area of the country, mosquitoes can hide out in old rotted logs and rotted vegetation in the winter. The mosquitoes will come out immediately if it warms up above 50 degrees. So if you live in a climate where it's totally frozen from the 1st of December until the 1st of March, you probably don't need heartworm prevention during those months. However, in Kentucky, where we live, we do not have such a season. Mosquitoes typically come out as soon as the weather warms up for one day to 50 degrees, and then they bite your pet. So we recommend heartworm prevention all year round.

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