Mosquito bites are itchy and annoying to humans, but did you know they can do worse to your pet by transmitting a heartworm infection? Heartworms live in your pet’s heart and lungs, where they can cause serious and permanent damage. However, monthly prevention medications can not only protect your pet from heartworm infections, but are also considerably safer, easier, and cheaper than treating a heartworm infection.
Our Mercer Street Veterinary Hospital team members are your heartworm experts and can help you find the right prevention product for your pet. We also know that heartworm prevention and treatment can be a confusing topic, so in honor of Heartworm Awareness Month, we’ve put together a list of do’s and don’ts to ensure your pet stays protected year-round.
Do: Control outdoor mosquito populations
The first step toward protecting your pet against heartworms is to reduce your mosquito populations as much as possible. Remove standing water sources from your property, and keep your lawn cut short. Some plants attract, while others can repel mosquitoes, so ask a local landscaper or nursery if you can make any adjustments that will reduce the mosquitoes around your home.
Do: Use pet-safe mosquito repellents
Keep your pet inside during peak mosquito hours at dawn and dusk. If you walk in wooded or grassy areas where you would use mosquito repellent, consider purchasing a pet-specific, pet-safe product labeled for use on dogs or cats. Most are made with low concentrations of essential oils, some of which are toxic for pets, so do not try to make your own home repellent concoction.
Do: Provide all pets with monthly heartworm prevention
Reducing mosquito bites is not enough to prevent heartworm, because only a single bite by an infected mosquito can transmit infection. Mosquitoes pick up heartworm larvae from other infected animals, including pets and wildlife, which they can spread to other pets after 10 to 14 days.
A monthly heartworm preventive medication is the only way to fully protect your pet. The preventives work retroactively, killing immature larvae that were transmitted during the weeks before you dosed your pet. Oral and topical formulas, most of which also control intestinal parasites, are available, and some are combined with flea and tick medications. Ask our team for the product that will work best for your pet’s lifestyle.
Do: Test your pet for heartworm infection according to your veterinarian’s recommendations
Routine heartworm testing detects heartworm infection in the earliest stages, when ideally, the worms have caused minimal damage. Dogs can be treated with a specific protocol that kills the adult worms, and a full recovery is more likely the sooner the heartworms are found. All dogs, including those on a monthly preventive, should be tested annually. Testing cats is more complicated and is usually performed only on cats with suspected infection. All pets should be tested before starting a preventive regimen.
A heartworm test can first show infection six to seven months after the infected mosquito bite, which means that newly adopted dogs with unknown histories should be tested once, and again six months later. Your veterinarian may also recommend a test approximately six months after any significant lapses in prevention.
Don’t: Skip heartworm prevention for cats
Cats, including those living exclusively indoors, are not immune to heartworm infections. Because they are not the ideal host, a cat’s immune system can sometimes clear a heartworm infection on its own—but not always. Cats who do become infected may host only one or two worms, but they can cause intense inflammation, respiratory disease, and occasionally sudden collapse or death. Prevention is crucial for all cats, because they cannot be safely treated for heartworm infections.
Don’t: Underestimate your pet’s risk
Heartworm has been found in all 50 states, and incidence in a particular area is not predictable. Mosquitoes can travel, infected pets can move around the country through adoption and rescue efforts, and mosquito activity is unpredictable. A single infected pet or animal living nearby greatly increases your pet’s risk.
Don’t: Wait until your pet becomes infected to take action
Your pet’s hearts and lungs are vital organs, and any damage can risk your pet’s long-term health. Cats cannot be treated for heartworm infections, and the treatment for dogs is not ideal, because they must be kept strictly cage-rested for several months, receive a series of painful injections, and take multiple oral medications to reduce complication risks. Treatment can cost more than $1,500, but prevention costs less than $150 each year.
Don’t: Skip heartworm prevention doses
Although mosquito activity decreases in the winter months, skipping prevention during this time is no longer recommended. Preventives work retroactively rather than proactively, and knowing when your pet was last bitten by a mosquito bite is nearly impossible, so your pet will be vulnerable to infection if a dose is skipped. Remember, most heartworm preventives also control other parasites, which are typically a year-round threat.
Heartworm infections can lead to serious consequences, but a simple monthly medication can protect your pet. Contact the Mercer Street Veterinary Hospital team to learn more about heartworm, or to schedule your pet’s next wellness visit and heartworm test.
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