Friday, April 08, 2016

Heartworms in Cats, Learn the Risks

April is Heartworm Awareness Month. Most people think of dogs when they think of heartworms but cats can also get the disease, even indoor cats since mosquitoes can travel inside the home. Heartworm is a parasitic disease that involves long thin worms that live in the blood vessels and heart of infected animals. Heartworm disease causes lung disease and heart failure, and is often fatal. 

Feline heartworm disease develops when a cat is bitten by a mosquito carrying heartworm larvae. As the mosquito feeds, these larvae make their way into the cat's bloodstream, typically residing in the pulmonary (lung) arteries and the right side of the heart. Infection often leads to severe lung disease and sudden death. Just one or two worms can adversely affect a cat’s health.

Symptoms of the disease include coughing, labored raspy breathing, and vomiting. Because respiratory problems are the predominant symptoms, a cat may be first diagnosed with asthma or a respiratory infection. To confirm a heartworm diagnosis, a vet will perform a blood test to look for heartworm antibodies, along with a chest x-ray. A physical examination may also reveal a heart murmur or irregular heart rhythm.

Currently, no medications exist to treat heartworm infection in cats. Once a cat has been diagnosed with the disease, managing the symptoms is really the only option. Therefore, the best defense against the disease is through routine prevention. Various preventatives are available, including monthly oral (HeartGard) and topical (Advantage Multi) formulas. Regularly-scheduled testing to monitor the success of any prevention program is also recommended. 

According to PetMD, “the prevalence rate of heartworm disease in unprotected cats that have not received the proper preventative medication … is significantly lower than that of unprotected dogs -- approximately one-tenth the rate of dogs.” The risk of infection varies from one region of the country to another and even from community to community. However, higher rates of incidents are reported in hot, humid areas like the Southeast and Hawaii. Caretakers of outdoor cats living in high-risk areas should consider providing a routine preventative, and they are advised to monitor colony sites for standing water -- which are breeding grounds for mosquitoes -- and ensure all water is discarded.

For more information on preventing heartworm disease in cats, be sure to speak with your veterinarian. 

American Heartworm Society. “Feline Heartworm Facts.”, n.d. Web. 06 April 2016.
American Heartworm Society. “Heartworm Incidence 2013.”, n.d. Web. 06 April 2016.
PetMD, LLC. "Heartworm Disease in Cats.”, n.d. Web. 06 April 2016.

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