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April 2015

Heartworm Disease in Dogs

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Dogs are not the only pets that can get Heartworm disease, but they’re the natural hosts for these deadly parasites – and the short story is, every dog’s best line of defense is a year-round heartworm prevention program.

Here’s what you need to know:

What are heartworms?

Heartworms are a parasites that can grow to be a foot long. They live for up to 5 years, during which time they can produce millions of offspring called microfilariae. Adult heartworms live in the heart and adjacent large blood vessels, and one infected dog can have as many as 300 worms when diagnosed; the microfilariae live mainly in the small blood vessels of the body.

How does a dog get infected?

When a mosquito bites an infected dog, it sucks up the microfilariae, which then live in the mosquito in order to mature into infective larvae. At this point, they make their way to the mosquito’s mouthparts where they can be transmitted when the mosquito bites another dog. They grow to maturity and can begin producing new offspring within 6 to 7 months.

Heartworms must have the mosquito as an intermediate host, which means that a dog cannot catch heartworms simply by interacting with an infected dog.

What are the signs of heartworm disease?

It can take several years before a dog starts to show signs of illness. While the signs vary depending on how long the dog has been infected, how many worms are present, and so on, the typical signs of adult worms include:

  • Soft, dry cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weakness and loss of stamina
  • Nervousness
  • Fainting or disorientation, especially after exercise

Since the microfilariae can cause lung and liver damage, dogs infected with microfilariae may cough, look jaundiced, and be weak.

How is heartworm disease diagnosed treated?

There are several simple blood tests for heartworm disease. A positive test result means further tests will be needed to determine whether the dog is well enough to undergo treatment.

Treatment is a long road, and the dog must be treated with different drugs to kill the adult heartworms as well as the microfilariae.

After the injections for adult heartworms, the dog must be kept very quiet. The adult heartworms die within a few days, and they break up and leave the heart, traveling to the lungs to be reabsorbed by the body. But the fragments of dead heartworms can cause serious complications and even death, so it is absolutely essential that the dog be kept quiet and avoid exercise for a full month following treatment.

About a month after the treatment for heartworms is complete, the dog will stay in the hospital for a day or two for the treatment to kill the microfilariae.

How can I protect my dog from heartworm disease?

All dogs should have annual heartworm tests and be on a preventative program. There are plenty of safe and effective options available including oral and topical medications. They need to be given exactly as directed because missing even one dose can leave your dog unprotected.

As a bonus, some heartworm preventatives also protect against either internal parasites (such as tapeworms) or external parasites (such as fleas). Talk to your veterinarian about the best option for your dog.

The American Heartworm Society recommends that all dogs be on heartworm preventatives year round, even in cold areas. Even though mosquitoes are more common in the warmer months, many can survive indoors all year.

Tick FAQ’s

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With the arrival of spring, we are all happy to spend more time outdoors. Unfortunately, that includes ticks – which can cause a lot of grief for pets and people. Let’s talk ticks.

Q: What are ticks that affect dogs and cats?

A: Ticks are not true insects because they have 8 legs instead of 6. They are arachnids and are cousins to spiders and scorpions.

Q: How many kinds of ticks are there?

A: There are over 15 species of ticks in North America. Some of the most common ones are the American Dog tick, the Deer or Blacklegged tick, the Brown Dog tick, and the Lone Star tick.

Q: Where do ticks live?

A: Ticks live in every state of the U.S. and in many areas of Canada. They move around a lot and since they can’t fly or jump and can only crawl, they “hitch” rides on mammals or birds.

Q: How do ticks hitch a ride on my dog or cat… or even me?

A: Ticks are very perceptive. They wait on the tips of grasses and shrubs where they sense odors, vibrations, changes in temperature or light patterns that occur as a host walks past. Then they extend their forelegs and grab on to the passing host.

Q: How can ticks survive in every state?

A: Ticks readily adapt to different climates and survive the extremely cold north, hot south, rainy east, and dry west. Ticks have a specialized mechanism to conserve water, so they can withstand droughts.

Q: What do ticks eat?

A: Ticks eat blood meals from their hosts, which can be your dog, your cat, your children, or you. They are efficient eaters and have anti-coagulants in their saliva to prevent the host’s blood from clotting so they can dine leisurely.

Q: Where do ticks lay their eggs?

A: Adult male and female ticks feed and mate on the host (again, your dog, cat or even you). Then the female ticks falls to the ground to lay her eggs. Male ticks often die after mating. Ticks are very prolific – they can lay thousands of eggs.

Q: What can I do to decrease ticks in my yard?

A: You can clean up areas of the yard that make good tick habitats. Rake the leaves, cut the grass, clean areas beneath trees and hedges. Have a professional exterminator spray regularly if the tick bloom is out of control.

Q: How can I keep ticks from bothering my dog or cat?

A: Products that kill ticks (acaricides) come in the form of monthly topical spot-ons and sprays as well as collars that last up to 6 months. Your veterinarian will help you choose the best product for your situation.

Q: Why do I see more ticks on my dog than on my cat?

A: Cats do get ticks, but they are such good groomers that they remove many of the ticks before attachment. Even so, it’s good to inspect both dogs and cats after outdoor activities and remove ticks promptly.

Q: What’s the best tick removal method for dogs and cats?

A: Do NOT try home remedies such as applying petroleum jelly or grease, or touching the rear of the tick with a hot match! These techniques cause the tick to salivate and can actually increase the chance of getting a disease. Instead:

  1. Use blunt tweezers and disposable gloves to handle the tick. Don’t touch the tick or its infectious agents directly.
  2. With tweezers, grasp the tick as close to the skin surface as possible. This reduces the possibility of the head detaching from the body upon removal.
  3. Pull the tick straight out with a steady, even pressure. Do not twist or jerk the tick as this may cause the mouthparts to break off and remain in the skin, increasing the chances of infection. Continue applying steady pressure… it may take a minute or two of constant, slow pulling to release the tick.
  4. Place the tick in a zip-lock bag or jar containing rubbing alcohol, and thoroughly disinfect the bite area. Wash your hands with soap and water. Label the container for identification. Include the date, time and place where the tick bite occurred. This helps you remember details of the incident, especially if a rash or other symptoms associated with Lyme disease appear later.
  5. Call your veterinarian and bring the tick sample to the practice. If you were bitten, bring the sample to your doctor. This helps your veterinarian (or physician) rule out or diagnose a tick-related illness.

Q: Can ticks harm their host?

A: Ticks cause primary illness such as paralysis, hypersensitivity and blood loss. They also cause secondary illnesses by transmitting viral and bacterial diseases. Ticks are second only to mosquitoes in the transmission of vector-borne disease.

Q: What diseases do ticks carry?

A: Ticks carry many diseases that affect dogs, cats, and humans. Some of the most common diseases are Lyme Disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Ehrlichia, Anaplasmosis, and Babesia.

Q: Are there vaccinations against these diseases?

A: Unfortunately, there aren’t immunizations for all of these diseases, but there is a canine vaccine for Lyme disease. Ask your veterinarian about it.