American Heartworm Society Reminds Dog Owners to Remain Vigilant Against Heartworm Disease
Veterinary & Aquatic Services Department, Drs. Foster & Smith

April 2003 News

Heartworm, a serious and often fatal disease of dogs, cats, and other species of mammals, is preventable. And, with the beginning of a brand new mosquito season, to help raise public awareness, April is being recognized as Heartworm Prevention Month. The American Heartworm Society has issued the following informative article:

Most pet owners wouldn't knowingly put their pet at risk of becoming infected with a potentially deadly disease, yet according to the American Heartworm Society (AHS), millions of pet owners who fail to protect their dog from heartworm infection are doing so everyday.

Heartworm is a life-threatening canine parasite transmitted by mosquitoes that affects dogs in all 48 of the contiguous states and Hawaii. While research shows that America's dog owners are familiar with the threat caused by heartworm disease, adherence to the proper administration of traditional heartworm preventatives remains a serious problem for dog owners and veterinarians.

According to a recent Gallup survey of 18,000 veterinary clinics nationwide, only 55 percent of U.S. dog-owning households are on a heartworm preventative. And, for dogs who are on a preventative, studies indicate that one in three dog owners missed giving the monthly heartworm prevention dose by more than a month, and 20 percent of those who missed a monthly dose eventually stopped giving the heartworm preventative altogether, leaving their dog vulnerable to potential infection.¹

With more than 240,000 dogs and 3,095 cats testing positive for heartworm infection nationwide in 2001, pet owner noncompliance to heartworm prevention creates a serious problem that is putting America's pets at risk.

What is Heartworm Disease?

Canine heartworm disease is a potentially deadly infection, caused by worms (Dirofilaria immitis) that may grow to be 14-inch-long adults. These worms live in the right side of the heart and arteries and of the lungs. Dogs of any age and breed are susceptible to infection. Heartworm infection can cause potentially serious damage to these arteries, eventually leading to heart failure, and in severe cases, damage other organs such as the liver and kidneys. In extreme cases, a dog can be infected with several hundred heartworms. Cats are also susceptible to the disease, but do not contribute significantly to spreading the infection.

Coinciding with mosquito season, heartworm disease is spread by mosquitoes that become infected with microfilariae while taking a blood meal from an infected dog. The microfilariae mature into the infective larval stage within the mosquito. When the mosquito then bites another dog, cat, or susceptible animal, it then passes the larvae into the animal's blood stream through the bite wound, resulting in heartworm infection. It then takes a little over six months for the infective larvae to mature into adult worms that can live for five to seven years in the dog.

Heartworm Disease is Preventable

Because heartworm disease is completely preventable, the AHS recommends that pet owners take steps now to talk to their veterinarian about how to best protect their pets from this dangerous disease. According to the AHS, heartworm prevention is safe, easy, and inexpensive compared to treating a dog or cat after worms have matured into adults. While treatment for heartworm disease is possible, it is a complicated and expensive process, taking weeks for infected animals to recover.

There are a variety of options for the prevention of heartworm infection in dogs, including an injectable administered by your veterinarian that provides protection for six months, daily and monthly tablets and chewables and monthly topicals. For cats, there are monthly chewables, and a topical solution. All of these methods are extremely effective, and when administered properly on a timely schedule, heartworm infection can be completely prevented.

Founded during the Heartworm Symposium of 1974, the American Heartworm Society was formed to facilitate and encourage the generation and dissemination of information about heartworm disease and encourage adoption of standardized procedures for its diagnosis, treatment and prevention. The Society stimulates and financially supports research, which furthers knowledge and understanding of the disease. Its headquarters are located in Batavia, Ill.

For more information see:

¹Based on a nationwide focus group survey of 2,500 dog owners. Data on file.

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