In our neck of the woods, we’re no stranger to bugs, but mosquitoes have a particularly bad reputation because they carry a disease that can be life-threatening to our pets.
Heartworm disease can affect cats as well as dogs and is prevalent in all 50 states and Canada. The disease results from foot-long worms that live in the pulmonary arteries and heart, causing significant organ damage and eventual death.
According to the Companion Animal Parasite Council, around 250,000 dogs become infected with heartworm each year. Fortunately, heartworm prevention is safe, effective, and widely available. Keep reading to learn more about this dangerous disease and tips for year-round heartworm prevention.
The life cycle of the heartworm is long and complex, and the basic steps to infection are important to understand:
- The cycle of heartworm begins when a mosquito bites an infected animal (pet or wildlife). Heartworm larvae, or microfilariae, are deposited into the mosquito’s body.
- The microfilariae develop inside the mosquito for 10-30 days.
- When the mosquito bites another pet, it injects the microfilariae into the new host.
- Once in the pet’s bloodstream, the baby heartworms circulate and develop further.
- When the microfilariae reach the heart and lungs, they mature into adult heartworms capable of reproduction.
- After 6-7 months of infection, the adult heartworms reproduce and send new baby microfilariae into the bloodstream. The pet is now a carrier and can spread the disease with the next mosquito bite.
Preventive medication works by killing off the microfilariae before they can mature into adult heartworms. Microfilariae take about 51 days to reach maturity, which is why interrupting this process each and every month is critical. With iCal and other electronic reminders, it’s easier than ever for pet owners to stay on schedule.
Mosquitoes in Winter?
In the dead of winter, mosquitoes may not be as prevalent, but that doesn’t mean the threat of heartworm disease goes away. In our area, the mild climate makes mosquitoes a year-round threat.
It’s also more difficult to know when to stop and start a medication than it is to keep your pet on a year-round heartworm preventive. Getting the timing wrong can cost you thousands of dollars in heartworm treatment, and it can cost your pet their life.
Significant Risk Factors
Every 3 years, the American Heartworm Society publishes a map of the U.S. and Canada that shows the incidence of heartworm and its rapid spread in our communities. Here are just a few risk factors of which owners should be aware:
- Sneaky mosquitoes – Studies show that mosquitoes can live in lower temperatures than previously thought (down to 23°F isn’t uncommon). And who hasn’t seen a mosquito indoors at some point? These parasites can live in garages, sheds, and other enclosures – even houses. This means that indoor pets can and do get heartworm disease.
- Microclimates – A few weeks of unseasonably warm temps during the winter isn’t unheard of, even in New York. In Texas, it’s common, and that’s all it takes for mosquitoes to start biting.
- Moving/traveling – Pet owners are traveling much more with their pets, which means there’s a greater chance of encountering mosquitoes and heartworm disease.
- Relocation of rescue pets – Many pets with heartworm disease were relocated across the country as a result of Hurricane Katrina. This has caused veterinary professionals to be more mindful of heartworm when relocating animals across regions.
- Gaps in protection – Just like any contagious illness, unprotected pets can become carriers of heartworm, helping spread the disease to other pets.
The Case for Year-Round Heartworm Prevention
Heartworm is a progressive disease, so we recommend annual testing. The earlier we can detect the disease, the better the outcome for your pet. Testing is still necessary, even when pets are on a year-round schedule to ensure the preventive is working. Even one missed or late dose can leave a pet unprotected.
The benefits of year-round heartworm prevention are great and can help safeguard your pet’s quality of life for years to come. If you have any questions about heartworm prevention, please don’t hesitate to give us a call at Stone Ridge Veterinary Medical Center. We’re always here to help!