Heartworm disease, the silent killer

At a time when measures are being taken to prevent the spread of the West Nile virus in North Texas, it is important that we do not forget about our pets as well.

Heartworm, which is becoming more and more prevalent among household pets, is also transmitted by mosquitoes, and Dr. Stephen Willis of Critter Care Animal Hospital in Flower Mound said it is a disease that is easily preventable.

“It is pretty simple,” Willis said. “In most cases, it’s just giving medication on a regular basis every month.”

Willis said that heartworm is a horrible affliction that affects dogs and is often misunderstood.

“The name heartworm is kind of a misnomer,” Willis said. “Most of the damage occurs in the lungs and the major organs, because of the circulatory issues. The heartworms are up in the blood vessels in the lungs, and they mate and give birth to live young, which can act as clots in the lungs as well.

“They can cause what we call multi-systemic damage, with particular damage to the lungs, but we can also get kidney and liver issues, where they become congested.”

Willis said the illness is also complicated by another factor that he sees all the time.

“The unfortunate thing about it is that, while the most common thing we think of when they have heartworm is losing weight, not feeling good and coughing, the most common sign we see with dogs when they come to us with heartworm is no signs at all,” Willis said. “They look like a totally normal dog. They are in for a wellness check, we do a heartworm test and they’re positive, which makes this kind of insidious.”

Willis said heartworm is really an “invisible” disease, but added that it can typically be treated as well.

“There are about four stages of the disease,” Willis said. “One and two are lesser, and of course, three and four are more severe. How we treat it depends on what stage they are in. We’ve advanced with our therapy now where treatment is highly successful, but it is expensive, and there can sometimes be permanent injury before you are able to treat them.

“It’s a whole lot easier and cheaper to go the preventative route. Unfortunately, we have statistics that show that only 45 percent of Americans give them heartworm prevention year round, and then 90 percent miss at least one pill a year…but they have to be given every single month.”

Willis said, if a pet owner is concerned his or her dog may have heartworm, he would recommend a couple of things.

“I would probably say that any of them are at risk that have not been on regular heartworm preventatives,” Willis said. “The most common sign is no sign, and the best thing that can be done is to get your dog tested, and if they have not been on preventative, get them on it.”


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