Sarah Wilson

Dog Expert

Heartworms in Dogs: 4 Common Questions


Heartworms Two friend’s recently adopted dogs brought up from the Southern US and both dogs had heartworms. Both were treated and both are just fine now. Heartworms in dogs are so serious and prevalent that every dog lover needs to understand some heartworm basics. Let’s start here:

How do dogs get heartworms?

Dogs get heartworms when they are bitten by a mosquito that carries heartworm larva. Once those larva enter your dog’s bloodstream they start to grow. And grow.  Males can be 4-6 inches long and females, wait for it, a foot. And how many of those worms can be curled up in your dog’s heart and lungs? Dozens. Even hundreds.  Freaks me out to think about it.

The more mosquitoes are in your area, the longer your mosquito “season” and the more time your dog spends outside the higher the risk is of infection. The dogs in the southern US are most at risk but infected dogs have been found in all 50 states.

Pip gets spritzed with a dog-safe mosquito repellant when we hike in bug-likely places. (If you use flea-and-tick prevention, check with your vet for what spray is okay.)

What are common heartworm symptoms?

When the tiny larva enter your dog, nothing  obvious will happen—at first. Then the worms start to grow and take up residence in your dog’s lungs and heart (hence their name). As they grow, your dog may get a dry, soft cough. Then, as your buddy’s heart and lungs are compromised, he won’t be able to exercise much. He’ll get tired quickly and lie around a lot. If you suspect this, he needs veterinary care right away.

Is there heartworm treatment?

Yes but it’s tricky. Killing the worm and not your dog means treatment over time. In dogs with significant infections, strict rest is required as the body rids itself of these parasites. Only your veterinarian can guide you through what is needed. The good news is dogs get treated and recover all the time. Just can take a while.

What are the heartworm medicine options?

There are a lot of preventatives on the market. Usually a pill or a topical you use monthly. None of them are inexpensive but all of them are financially cheaper than treating your dog after infection and emotionally cheaper than losing your companion.

And since a rather depressing number of dogs become infected if they are exposed (that number being clinically known as “all”), prevention is key.

The first company that comes out with a safe, effective and less expensive preventative for heartworms in dogs is going to win a huge slice of this mammoth market. I hope someone acts on that thought. It would be a kindness to us dog lovers and our companions as well as an excellent business decision.

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