What Every Pet Owner Needs to Know About Heartworm Disease

Written by Aimee Thomas

On June 19, 2024
What Every Pet Owner Needs to Know About Heartworm Disease

As a responsible pet owner, it is crucial to inform yourself about health issues that can affect your beloved animals. One such significant concern is heartworm disease, a potentially fatal condition that affects both dogs and cats. Understanding heartworm disease, its prevention and treatment, and what to expect if your dog or cat is diagnosed with it can make a substantial difference in the health and longevity of your pets.

Understanding Heartworm Disease

Heartworm disease is caused by a parasitic worm called Dirofilaria immitis, transmitted through mosquito bites. The larvae enter the pet’s bloodstream and travel to the heart, lungs, and associated blood vessels, where they mature into adult worms. These worms can grow up to a foot long and cause severe damage to the heart, lungs, and other vital organs.

While dogs are the primary host for heartworms, this can also affect cats. However, the disease manifests differently in cats. Heartworms can live and reproduce in dogs, leading to a higher worm burden. In contrast, the infection is often more severe in cats despite typically having fewer worms.


Prevention is the best defense against heartworm disease. Several FDA-approved preventive medications are available for dogs and cats. These medications are typically administered monthly, either orally or topically, and work by killing the heartworm larvae before they can mature into adult worms. 

For Dogs

Oral Medications are the most popular option among pet owners. You can easily give them to your pet as a treat or wrap them in a pill pocket if your pet is a little fussy. Common brands include Heartgard, Interceptor, and Trifexis.

Topical Medications: Products like Revolution and Advantage Multi offer protection. These are given depending on the weight of your animal. They are available through your vet or at your local pet store.

Injectable Medications: ProHeart is an injectable preventive that protects for six or twelve months.

For Cats

Topical Medications: Revolution and Advantage Multi are also available for cats and effectively prevent heartworm disease.

It’s important to administer these preventives year-round, even in colder months, as mosquitoes can survive in certain conditions, and heartworm prevention also helps control other parasites.

Pet Owner Needs to Know About Heartworm Disease

Treatment of Heartworm Disease

If your dog or cat receives a heartworm diagnosis, the treatment process will vary depending on the infection’s severity and the pet’s species. 

For Dogs

Initial Assessment: The vet will perform blood tests, x-rays, and ultrasounds to determine the extent of the infection.

Stabilization: In severe cases, the dog may need to be stabilized before starting the treatment, which could involve antibiotics and steroids.

Medication: The primary treatment consists of a series of injections with melarsomine, which kills adult heartworms. This process can be painful and requires careful monitoring.

Restricted Activity: Dogs undergoing treatment must limit their physical activity to prevent complications from dying worms causing blockages in the heart or lungs.

For Cats

Symptomatic Treatment: No approved medication kills adult heartworms in cats. Treatment focuses on managing symptoms and providing supportive care, such as steroids to reduce inflammation and bronchodilators to improve breathing.

Surgical Removal: In rare and severe cases, surgical removal of the worms may be necessary.


What to Expect if Your Dog or Cat is Diagnosed with Heartworm Disease

A diagnosis of heartworm disease can be overwhelming, but understanding what to expect can help you prepare for the road ahead.

  1. Treatment Duration: Treating heartworm disease in dogs can take several months and requires strict adherence to the vet’s instructions. Cats may need ongoing management of symptoms over a long period.
  2. Cost: Treatment can be expensive, often costing several hundred to over a thousand dollars, depending on the severity of the infection and complications.
  3. Prognosis: With timely and appropriate treatment, many dogs recover fully from heartworm disease. While more challenging to treat, cats can still lead comfortable lives with proper management.
  4. Prevention Post-Treatment: After successful treatment, keeping your pet on a heartworm preventive regimen is crucial to avoid reinfection.

Heartworm disease is a serious condition that every pet owner should be aware of. By understanding the nature of the disease, prioritizing prevention, knowing the treatment options, and understanding the implications of a diagnosis, you can ensure the best possible care for your furry companions. Regular vet check-ups and preventive measures are vital to keeping your pets healthy and heartworm-free.

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