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Heartworms in dogs

Golden puppy advice
© Pixabay

What’s one thing that all dog lovers fear? Heartworms. These dangerous worms cause dangerous and potentially fatal damage to a dog’s body. Thankfully, heartworms aren’t found in the UK - but if you’re holidaying abroad with your pup, especially to the US, you need to be aware of all things heartworms in dogs.

By Alice Lang

Foot-long worms reproducing in your dog’s body? Not only is heartworms in dogs disgusting, but it can also be life-threatening. The blood-borne parasite goes by the name Dirofilaria immitis. This type of roundworm can live for up to 5 years inside an animal’s body. Yuck!

“The dog is a natural host for heartworms, which means that heartworms that live inside the dog mature into adults, mate and produce offspring. If untreated, their numbers can increase, and dogs have been known to harbour several hundred worms in their bodies.” says the American Heartworm Society.

Heartworms in dogs can cause long-term damage to the lungs, hearts and arteries of infected dogs - especially if it goes untreated. And even when the parasites have been successfully treated, a dog’s quality of life can suffer from the damage already done.

How do dogs get heartworms?

heartworms in dogs
It's all down to those pesky mosquitos ©Armen Chlchatian on Unsplash

“Only by the bite of an infected mosquito. There’s no other way dogs get heartworms. And there’s no way to tell if a mosquito is infected. That’s why prevention is so important.” explains Sheldon Rubin, 2007-2010 president of the American Heartworm Society, to Pets WebMD.

“The bite of just one mosquito infected with the heartworm larvae will give your dog heartworm disease. If you have mosquitoes and you have animals, you’re going to have heartworms. It’s just that simple.”

Heartworms in dogs: what happens?

Once a dog is bitten by an infected mosquito, it takes an average of 7 months for the larvae to develop into adult heartworms. Unfortunately, the worms then lodge into the bodily organs and blood vessels to reproduce, growing up to a mighty 12 inches in length.

Adult heartworms clog the heart and blood vessels inside a dog’s body, disrupting critical valve action in the heart. As time goes by and the main blood vessel becomes clogged, blood supply to other organs gets reduced. Eventually, this can cause the organs to malfunction completely.

Adult dogs have been known to hold up to 250 active worms in their system at any one time. Yep, these parasites are pretty scary, to say the least.

Symptoms of heartworms in dogs

The scary thing about heartworms in dogs is how easy it is for them to go undetected. Symptoms can take years to show up in dogs and by that time, the dog’s organs may have already been damaged.

By the time the condition progresses, you may notice the following symptoms:

  • A stubborn, dry cough
  • Difficulty breathing and shortness of breath
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Anxiety or behavioural changes
  • Loss of stamina
  • Weight loss
  • Disorientation or fainting during physical activity
  • Dry coat
  • Pot-bellied appearance
  • Seizures
  • Nosebleeds

If you have absolutely any suspicion that your pooch is suffering from heartworms, you should head to the vet and explain your concerns. Don’t wait it out and see if your dog gets better - early diagnosis is essential.

Diagnosis of heartworms in dogs

Most of the time, your vet will run a simple blood test to screen for heartworms in dogs.

In heartworm-prone areas, regular tests will (and should) be carried out on dogs. If you’re from the UK, you won’t have these tests, as they're not necessary. However, do make sure to talk to your vet about heartworms before travelling abroad with your pooch.

If heartworms are suspected, your vet may need to investigate further. This could include a blood chemistry panel, a blood cell count and chest X-rays on your pup, to figure out how far advanced the condition is.

Treatment of heartworms in dogs

heartworms in dogs
Your pup might not like it, but he'll need to rest as part of his heartworm treatment ©Ruby Schmank on Unsplash

Treatment varies from case to case - but if your dog is diagnosed with heartworms, you can expect a combination of medication, surgery and exercise restriction.

Normally, heartworms in dogs are treated with a drug called melarsomine, which is able to kill adult heartworms, as well as a heartworm preventative and a course of antibiotics to reduce potential side effects.

Occasionally, a dog may need to be hospitalized if the condition is particularly far advanced. If medication alone isn’t enough to ward off heartworms, surgery may be needed to remove them. Generally, this is only needed in severe cases.

As soon as heartworms in dogs are diagnosed, your vet will tell you to completely restrict exercise for an amount of time (usually 6-8 weeks) during and after treatment. This is essential for your pup’s recovery.

Preventing heartworms in dogs

If your dog permanently lives here in the UK, heartworm isn’t a worry. You don’t need to take any preventative measures. But for those planning on travelling abroad with their dog to areas where heartworm risk is high, preventing heartworms in dogs is essential.

Mosquito bite prevention is key - this can be achieved by using either a spot-on treatment or a drug collar. Along with this, you should use a medication to stop worm’s developing in your dog should they get bitten. This can be done through another form of spot-on treatment or tablet, which should be discussed with your vet prior to travel.

It’s also important to note that these treatments should begin before leaving home and continued for a short period of time after returning to the UK.

Now you know all about heartworms in dogs, your pooch is in safe hands. Remember, always head to your vet if you suspect that your dog has heartworms or is exhibiting any unusual symptoms or behaviours. Happy travels!