Spring means time for to get your dog tested for heartworm

Our weather temperatures are up and down, warm one day, cool the next and then right where we should be. It must be March.

While I'm starting to think of garden centers and bright spring flowers, the postcard from our veterinarian reminds me it's time for one of the most important springtime things we can do for our companion animals, heartworm testing and preventive.

According to the American Heartworm Society,, the AVMA, and the AAHA, heartworm is a preventable, but serious and potentially fatal parasite that primarily infects dogs, cats and ferrets. Heartworm has been diagnosed in approximately 30 species of animals in all 50 states, and affects millions of indoor and outdoor pets. All dogs, regardless of sex, age or living environment, are susceptible to heartworm infection.

Heartworm can only be transmitted from animal to animal by mosquitoes that are infected with heartworms. One bite and your dog, cat or ferret can be infected. The cycle goes like this: When a mosquito bites an infected animal, young heartworms enter into that mosquito's system. In the next two weeks, they develop into infective larvae inside the mosquito. Then the mosquito bites another dog or cat (or other animal) and the infected larvae enter through the bite wound.

Once inside the body, the heartworms develop invisibly within your animal, nesting and reproducing, lodging in your animal's lungs and/or right sides of their heart.

The larvae migrate through the animal's body, eventually reaching the blood vessels of the lungs. The immature worms continue to develop and grow into adults, with females growing to lengths of 14 inches.

The heartworms damage blood vessels and reduce the heart's pumping ability. The presence of heartworms in the vital blood vessels of the lungs can cause death. When your animal shows signs of illness due to adult heartworm infection, it's called heartworm disease.

If a dog is recently or mildly infected with heartworms, he may not show any signs of illness until the adult worms have developed in his lungs.

The signs of heartworm disease include a mild, persistent cough, reluctance to move or exercise, lethargy, fatigue after only moderate exercise, reduced appetite, weight loss and difficulty breathing.

There are numerous diagnostic tests available for your veterinarian to detect the presence of adult heartworm infection in your dog, notes the AVMA. Antigen testing, which is most commonly performed and is very accurate in dogs, detects the presence of adult female heartworms. Antibody tests determine if your pet has been exposed to heartworms.

There is an FDA approved treatment available if your dog becomes infected with heartworms, as noted by the AVMA. Although serious complications are much less likely in dogs that are in good health and when a veterinarian's instructions are followed carefully, there is substantial risk involved in treating dogs for heartworm.

The goal of heartworm treatment is to kill the heartworms as safely as possible. When a dog is treated, it's important to consider heartworms are dying inside his lungs. He will require complete rest throughout his hospitalization and for some time following the last treatment.

Other medications may be necessary to help control the body's inflammatory reaction as the worms die and are broken down in the dog's lungs.

Heartworm infection is almost 100 percent preventable, according to the AHS and the AVMA. There are several FDA-approved heartworm preventives available, including daily and monthly tablets, chewables and other formulations. Your veterinarian can recommend the best method of prevention based upon your dog's risk factors and lifestyle.

The AHS sums it up: "Heartworms are agonizing to treat. Easy to prevent."

I've got my appointment scheduled for my dog to get heartworm tested. If you share your life with a dog, heartworm testing and giving him the preventive treatments will keep him safe. He trusts us to do it for him.

• The Buddy Foundation, 65 W, Seegers Road, Arlington Heights, is a nonprofit (501c3), all volunteer, no-kill animal shelter dedicated to the welfare of stray, abused and abandoned cats and dogs. For information, call The Buddy Foundation at (847) 290-5806 or visit

Charlie, a male, poodle/terrier mix, is about 7 years old and weighs in at 12 pounds. Courtesy of The Buddy Foundation
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