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A Dog’s Story: Heartworm, why it’s important and what you need to know

Dr. Lora LaBranche, Jackie Nickerson CVT, and Dr. Rebecca Lussier at Braintree Veterinary Care

Around our opening we had an interesting case that reminded us why it is important to look for Heartworm Disease. A sweet dog came into the hospital. Her owners were concerned about a swelling on her ear. What looked to be a routine case, quickly evolved as we discovered she had heartworm disease. Now the client who had come in for something that seemed fairly simple, was dealing with a completely different concern. 

This case was a stark reminder as to why it is important to keep our pets on a monthly heartworm prevention. In 2019, the American Heartworm Disease Incidence map shows that the Boston area is a significant hotspot. Across New England, individual veterinary clinics averaged anywhere from 1 to a whopping 25 cases in 2019.

Dogs are the natural host for heartworms, and this parasite can live within their heart, lungs, and blood vessels. This disease can be fatal if left untreated. But how is heartworm transmitted from infected dogs to healthy dogs? The answer is quite a common pest, mosquitos. Adult female heartworms live inside an infected dog and produce larvae that circulate within the bloodstream. When a mosquito bites this dog, the mosquito becomes infected over the next 10-14 days as the larvae mature. This infected mosquito can then bite a healthy dog, and allow the larvae to enter its bloodstream. In 6 months, the larvae develops into a mature adult heartworm within the pet and the cycle repeats.

To ensure your pet does not become infected with heartworms, testing and prevention is key! The first step is testing. The American Heartworm Society recommends that puppies get tested at 7 months, and again 6 months later, especially if they were not consistently on a heartworm prevention medication. This is because puppies are just as susceptible to this infection as adult dogs. After the first-year, dogs should be tested annually, and the best part is it only takes 10 minutes! Your veterinarian will use a small sample of blood from your pet, and you can typically receive the results while you wait during your appointment.

After determining your pet does not have an active heartworm infection, the next step is heartworm prevention. In order for prevention to be effective, it needs to be given every month, all year round. Heartworm prevention is simple to give. Your veterinarian can determine what type of prevention is best for you and your pet. Options include injectable medications, oral tablets, and topical products. With many options available, it is easy to keep your pet protected. However, it is still required to keep up with annual testing. We all know as pet owners that sometimes we can miss a dose, or your dog can spit out or vomit a pill without any of us knowing. Make an appointment with your veterinarian today to ensure your furry friend is protected!

-Lora, and Cheryl