A heartworm is a parasitic worm that is transmitted by mosquitoes to your dog. It is easy to prevent, but can be difficult and costly to cure. Your dog can become infected when bit by a mosquito that is infected with the heartworm larvae. There is no way you can detect if a particular mosquito is infected, but it only takes a bite from ONE infected mosquito for the larvae to be transmitted to your dog.
Once the larvae has been transmitted to your dog, it takes about 7 months for it to mature into an adult heartworm. These little buggers travel through your dog's body and lodge into the heart, lungs and blood vessels to reproduce. Adult worms can get up to about a foot long and can live 5-7 years reproducing and causing permanent damage inside of your dog. A dog can get up to 250 worms inside there body! YUCK. If left untreated, the infestation will eventually kill your dog in a not so nice way.
Luckily, there are readily available preventatives you can give your dog in the form of monthly chew tablets (that dogs think are treats), monthly topicals and a 6-month injectable. The preventatives are the way to go in terms of health and cost efficiency. If your dog already has heartworms, there is a treatment: Immiticide, which is an injectable arsenic based product that must be given 2- 3 times to your dog. The cost for treatment can range from $300-$1000 depending upon where you live. The catch to just relying on treatment instead of a preventative is that heartworms can cause serious permanent damage to your dog's heart, lungs and blood vessels. During treatment, your dog must remain quiet for several months afterward. As the worms die from the Immiticide, they break off into tiny pieces and can cause pulmonary blockage. Most deaths after treatment are caused by dogs exercising not from the actual treatment. If a dog gets heartworm and the owner has absolutely no way to pay for the treatment, the monthly preventative (Ivermectin) can be given instead. BUT, it takes about TWO YEARS for Ivermectin to eradicate the worms and in the meantime permanent damage to the heart, lungs and blood vessels will happen. In addition, heartworms are not a one time deal. Your dog can get repeat infections if not given the preventative.
How Can I Tell if My Dog Has Heartworms?
Initially, you dog will have no symptoms, but as the worms multiply and take up more space inside your dog, you will notice:
- A chronic cough
- Your dog will get easily tired from exercise
- Abnormal lung sounds
- Pass out from lack of blood to the brain
- Eventually death
No. Heartworms are a specific parasite to dogs, cats and ferrets. It is VERY rare for a human to get heartworms and even if a human does become infected, the worm cannot complete it's cycle. Also, Heartworms cannot be transmitted from dog to dog. It must be transmitted through a mosquito. Even if a mosquito bites an infected dog and then bit an uninfected dog. There is an incubation period that has to take place inside the mosquito before it can transmit the larvae.
The best way to keep your dog happy, healthy and free of these really gross parasites is to give your dog the preventative. I recommend to give your dog the preventative even in the cold months. Repetition breeds habit and humans are notorious for forgetting. If you stop giving your preventative in the winter, you are more likely to forget to give it to your dog in the high-risk seasons. For more information, please visit these sites:
Heartworms in Dogs: Facts and Myths, WebMD, http://pets.webmd.com/dogs/guide/heartworms-in-dogs-facts-and-myths
Heartworm Basics, American Heartworm Society, https://www.heartwormsociety.org/pet-owner-resources/heartworm-basics
Heartworms, Pets and Parasites, http://www.petsandparasites.org/dog-owners/heartworms/