Pets under threat of heartworms, have them tested, treated

Published 7:00 am Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Every year countless dogs, cats and other animals are infected with heartworms. Heartworms infect an animal’s heart, blood vessels, lungs, kidneys and liver. If left untreated, these parasites can cause life-threatening organ failures.

According to the American Heartworm Society’s website, heartworms are transmitted animal to animal by mosquitoes. When a mosquito bites an infected animal, larvae attach to the mosquito and cling to it until they are transferred to a new host, creating a risk for unprotected dogs and cats.

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Heartworms are present across the entire United States. According to an article published by BioMed Central, heartworms are the most prevalent in hot, humid areas such as in the lower Mississippi River Valley. The highest percentages of heartworm infections are in Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and parts of Texas.

Because of the location and climate in Pearl River County, it is imperative to protect pets.

Picayune Veterinary Clinic owner and veterinarian Dr. Blythe Odom said that the best way to keep a pet from contracting heartworms is to give them regular preventative medication. She said that if an owner forgets to give their pet this medication for even a few months, there is a 95 percent chance an infection could occur.

Odom said she and her staff typically test pets annually during their checkup. The test is simple – all veterinary staff need is a small blood sample. Testing the sample only takes ten minutes.

Preventative measures are relatively inexpensive and extremely effective against heartworms. However, for an animal that tests positive, the treatment process is long and arduous. Odom said that once an animal tests positive, additional blood tests and x-rays are required to assess the severity of the infection. If it is caught early, before the worms have had a chance to spread, it is much easier to provide treatment.

After the tests are concluded, animals are put on a cycle of injections over the course of a month to kill adult heartworms. Once the injections are complete, the animal is given a larvicide treatment to target remaining adolescent worms. Heartworms must be 7-months-old to be detected by tests, so animals must return six months after their last treatment to be retested, Odom said.

Since these tests can be costly and time-consuming, Odom said, “It’s such a better way to go to just keep them on prevention.”

Odom said that if nothing is done for an infected animal, the pet’s condition would slowly worsen over time. Heartworms breed within the heart, so as the infection worsens, the heart expands. As a result, the heart is unable to pump blood sufficiently, fluids fill the abdomen, and the animal would suffer from severe exercise intolerance, blood clots and other symptoms until death, Odom said.

If someone has an animal that has tested positive for heartworms but cannot afford a full treatment, Odom suggests giving the animal monthly preventative medication to slow the progression of the infection. While it’s not a permanent solution, Odom said treatment can prevent the pet from suffering more serious symptoms.