Pets and Mosquitoes in South Texas: How to keep your pet safe from heartworm

Author: Mosquito Squad of Greater NE San Antonio

May is National Pet Month to celebrate the over 200 million pets in America.  What better way to celebrate our furry friends than to keep the safe and healthy.

Many people moving to South Texas from other parts of the country are not aware that heartworm is a serious threat to the lives of many mammals in this area.

Heartworm is a serious and potentially fatal disease transmitted from animal to animal by the mosquitoes.  Dogs and cats of any breed and age as well as other mammals including wolves, ferrets and foxes are all susceptible to the illness. 

Heartworm disease is difficult to cure but easy to prevent and there are many easy to administer and inexpensive products on the market.  Today, there are also ways to prevent heartworm in your pet naturally with products proven to be safe and just as effective.  It only takes one bite from an infected female mosquito for the disease to spread, so if you are an animal owner it is important to understand and act to prevent heartworm in your pet.

So what exactly is heartworm?
Heartworm is a naturally acquired infection found worldwide, with cases reported in all 50 states of America.  The process of the disease begins with a mosquito becoming infected with young heartworm, known as microfilariae, while feeding from the blood of the infected animal. 

The microfilariae mature into larvae over the next 10-14 days within the mosquito.  Once the parasite has bitten your pet, the larvae enter through the bite wound.  It travels through their connective tissue and enters the blood stream before being deposited into the arteries of the lungs. The larvae matures into an adult heartworm over a period of approximately 6 months where it migrates towards the heart, lungs and blood vessels before commencing the reproduction cycle.

A mature adult worm can grow up to 12 inches in length and as many as 250 worms can be reproduced within a dog, living for 5-7 years causing serious injury throughout that time. Cats however, are relatively resistant to heartworm with an infection rate of 5-20% that of dogs in the same area. They typically incur fewer adult worms, usually less than six, and only having a reproductive capability of months rather than years.

What are the signs my pet has heartworm disease?
Heartworm is difficult to detect in pets and in many cases it is often too late to cure the disease.  In dogs, the clinical signs may not be evident in the early period of infection and depend on the size of the dog and the number of worms.  A heavily infected dog may show signs of fatigue, deep cough and reduced appetite.  Clinical signs of heartworm disease in cats often mimic that of other illnesses and in many cases the infection is mistaken for feline asthma.  Symptoms of heartworm disease include vomiting, difficult or rapid breathing and weight loss.  As the disease progresses in the animals the symptoms become more severe.

What can I do to protect my pet from heart worm disease?
Heartworm disease is preventable in both cats and dogs with a variety of options available including daily or monthly tablets, monthly topical treatments and products administered by injection on a six monthly basis.  While heart worm prevention is safe, effective and inexpensive, treatment of pets infected with the diseases is not.  

Treatment of dogs is complicated, takes a period of weeks and is often a very costly, painful process.  Cats however, are not so lucky, as there is yet to be an approved medication to treat felines with the disease without causing significant side effects.

There is continuous debate about whether giving your pet heartworm preventives, which are composed of insecticides designed to kill the larvae, is safe for your dog’s overall health.  If you are thinking of preventing heartworm in your pet naturally, you should first assess their potential risks for contracting the disease and discuss your options with your vet.  It is also recommended you feed your dog or cat a balanced, healthy diet specific to their breed and keep them well exercised.

There are heartworm nosode, herbal extracts and certain homeopathic treatments available that are used to kill both the microfilaria and the adult worms in dogs if the natural route is your preferred option.

Whether you want to prevent heartworm in your pet via a conventional or natural product you should consider the following:

  • A female mosquito can only transmit the disease to your dog if she has previously been infected.
  • Diagnosis of heartworm in your pet is difficult and can sometimes appear negative on test results depending on when your animal was infected.
  • Treatment is prevention and you can couple your chosen preventative tools with mosquito control measures.  Clean up your animal’s environment by removing any mosquito breeding grounds, avoid taking your pet outside during peak times of dawn and dusk and spray natural repellents around the home.
  • There is currently no effective treatment of heartworm in cats and although treatment of dogs is available, it is costly and difficult.