As the Zika virus continues to make news, pet owners everywhere are asking if mosquitoes could infect their dogs and cats. So far, experts say they simply don’t know how or if the mosquito-borne disease affects pets.
But veterinarians from BluePearl Veterinary Partners say it’s worth remembering that dogs and cats all across the country face another danger from mosquitoes. It’s not new or mysterious, but it is nasty and deadly.
It’s heartworm – which thankfully is also quite preventable.
“Heartworm prevention is a cornerstone of proper veterinary care,” said BluePearl’s Dr. Erick Mears, who is board-certified in veterinary internal medicine. Mears also is medical director of BluePearl’s Florida hospitals.
Dogs and cats can get heartworm when they are bitten by mosquitoes that have been infected with heartworm larvae. Worms will grow inside pets’ bodies, causing serious health concerns.
In a dog, the long stringy worms can grow in the heart, taking up so much space that the heart has difficulty drawing in enough blood to circulate back out through the body. Worms also can travel through small blood vessels and get into the lungs.
Cats are more likely to be affected through their lungs. And because they have sensitive respiratory systems, a small number of worms can cause big problems.
Mears said dog and cat owners should talk to their primary veterinarians about which heartworm medicine is best for their pets. It’s very difficult to prevent your pet from getting bitten by mosquitoes, especially if you live in warmer areas such as Florida, and Texas, where mosquitoes are essentially a year-round concern. That’s why proper medicine – often given to pets on a monthly basis — is the best solution.
Signs of heartworm in dogs include coughing, vomiting, loss of appetite and lethargy. Signs in cats include coughing, lack of appetite and weight loss. It can be deadly.
If your dog or cat does have heartworm, your primary veterinarian will have recommendations for you, which could include going to a specialist like those at BluePearl. Specialists at BluePearl, including Dr. Mears, have received years of additional training and study to be certified as experts within their specialties.
In severe cases, BluePearl experts have performed surgery to remove heartworms. For example Dr. Laura Hatton, a board-certified cardiologist with BluePearl, removed an unusually large amount of heartworms from a 2-year-old Yorkshire terrier last summer.
The threat of Zika is something that veterinarians are likely to learn much more about in coming years.
But for heartworm, this much is already clear: Prevention could save your pet’s life.