Heartworm prevention is a vital component of small animal preventive care. Most of us in the veterinary field know this, because we understand the effects of the disease and may have even seen patients suffering from heartworms.
Ultimately, however, our knowledge isn’t what helps our patients. Our patients benefit when we convey that knowledge to pet owners and incite them to action.
While it’s impossible to teach clients everything there is to know about heartworms in the span of a 15-30 minute wellness appointment, it’s important that you provide clients with at least a basic understanding of what heartworms are, how they are spread, and how they can be prevented. Ask clients if they’ve ever heard of heartworms; if not, provide a basic overview.
“Heartworms are a parasite spread by mosquitoes. When a mosquito bites your pet, microscopic heartworm larvae can be injected into the bloodstream. From there, these larvae travel to the heart, where they mature into large worms that look sort of like spaghetti.”
Next, you will need to provide the client with more detail. Focus on what’s important:
1. Heartworms affect dogs, cats, and ferrets. Although heartworms are primarily associated with dogs, the incidence of feline heartworms is approximately 5-20% the incidence of canine heartworms in a given geographic area. Therefore, any area where dogs are at risk is also an area where cats are at risk. (Heartworms have been detected in dogs in all 50 states!) Heartworms are less common in ferrets, but ferrets are also susceptible and should receive prevention.
2. Heartworm disease is a serious health risk. Heartworm infection in dogs can lead to cough, exercise intolerance, lethargy, weight loss, and death. Signs in cats are variable and include vomiting, cough, asthma-like breathing disorders, and sudden death. Ferrets often develop signs similar to those seen in dogs, but signs progress rapidly and as little as one worm can be fatal.
3. Heartworm disease is not solely a problem of outdoor pets; even indoor pets are at risk. It only takes a single mosquito to infect a pet with heartworms. Most of us find occasional mosquitoes in our home and these mosquitoes can cause heartworms in indoor pets. In fact, over a quarter of feline heartworm cases occur in indoor-only cats.
4. Heartworm prevention should be given year-round. Many clients are tempted to skip doses during winter months, but studies have shown that even cold regions may have scattered pockets of warm air (or intermittent warm days) that can support mosquitoes during winter.
5. Dogs should be tested yearly, even if they receive regular heartworm prevention. Although heartworm prevention is highly effective, dogs on heartworm prevention do occasionally test positive for heartworms. These perceived product failures are often caused by missed doses of prevention, but product failures may rarely occur. Annual testing allows early heartworm detection and treatment, minimizing damage to the heart and lungs. Additionally, annual testing is often a requirement for the guarantees offered by many heartworm prevention manufacturers; dogs that develop heartworms while on prevention may be treated at the manufacturer’s cost if certain conditions are met. (Cats and ferrets are not typically tested unless the veterinarian suspects heartworm disease. Diagnosis is challenging and no approved treatment exists in these species.)