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By Teresa Bigham / The Hesperian-Beacon—
LOCKNEY – Five years ago, I adopted a senior dog, a Great Dane, and her name is Jazz. We now call her Granny.
At the time I adopted her, I was told she was about six years old. Great Danes’ life span is anywhere between six to 10 years, so she was already old when she came into my life.
Along with hip problems she also had heartworms, which was very scary. When the disease is caught early and treated with heartworm medicine, it’s not a death sentence for your beloved family pet.
Heartworms are worms that live in the heart, lungs and blood vessels of the infected dog. The adult worms are long white threads and they can grow up to a foot long.
Heartworms affect many mammals, but dogs are the actual hosts for filarial organism. They can infect other mammals, including wolves, coyotes, foxes, sea lions, otters, jackals, hyenas, red pandas, cats, ferrets and even humans and they exist in every state in the U.S.
Places that support populations of mosquitoes are more likely to have problems with heartworms being highly prevalent. That’s because mosquitoes play a huge part in spreading the disease.
Mosquito bites is what causes heartworms in your dogs. Here’s how those little bloodsuckers do their dirty work. A mosquito bites an infected dog and ingests the blood that has the microfilariae, or baby worms circulating around in it. Those little babies grow into infective larva, at that point they then go into the mosquito’s mouth parts. When that mosquito bites another dog or animal the infective larva are deposited on the surface of the animal’s skin and enter the new host through the bite wound.
Once the larva is inside the host the pre adult heartworms continue to grow. While they move through the subcutaneous tissue and muscle fibers and into the animal’s bloodstream toward the heart and lungs. The growing larva reaches their destination as early as 67 days after transmission. At this point the not so tiny worms measure around one inch to an inch and a half.
Around day 120 days the worms now can measure 10-12 inches in length. The worms have now matured into adults and have mated and started having babies. The entire process from that initial mosquito bite to adult maturation takes six to nine months.
What are the typical signs of heartworms? In the disease’s early stages, the animal can remain asymptomatic for a time. Once the heart and lungs burden becomes large enough the animal can have a mild or persistent cough, fatigue and resistance to walking and exercise because they tire out so fast. The animal can have a diminished appetite and as a result of that, weight loss. They generally develop a large belly and can develop a syndrome called caval syndrome where the animal can collapse and suddenly die.
To diagnose heartworms in dogs who aren’t on heartworm preventives or those who have stopped taking their preventives for a time your vet will perform two types of blood tests. The first one is an antigen test and a microfilaria test to confirm the findings.
The antigen test checks for certain proteins produced by adult heartworms. Because the antigen and microfilaria test usually doesn’t detect heartworms until five to six months post infection it is important to remember that a negative diagnosis doesn’t always mean the animal is heartworm free.
If there’s a positive diagnosis your vet might confirm the finding with an x-ray or an ultrasound. The earlier they are detected the better the chances that the animal will recover.
The treatment for heartworms is a long and complicated procedure and is expensive. A dog’s veterinarian will determine the best course of action for the heartworm infected patient.
My sweet girl made a full recovery and am so glad I did the treatment for her.