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How serious is a heartworm infection in dogs?

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Heartworm is one of the more serious parasites that can infect your dog. Discover how they spread, how they grow and how you can reduce your chances of having to deal with them.
Dog in sunny field

Easy to prevent but difficult to cure, heartworms can be a serious problem in dogs. Long, string-like parasites that curl around like spaghetti in the heart can, if left untreated, cause a number of serious medical problems, and even death.

Heartworms are one of the most dangerous parasites that your dog might ever have to face, and they’re spread via mosquitoes that carry the infectious heartworm larvae. Though not currently found in the UK, the risk is serious in mainland Europe, USA and many other parts of the world. If you ever travel abroad with your dog, it’s essential that you take the proper precautions.

The mosquito bites the dog, opening a door for the larvae, which migrate through the dog’s body until they reach the heart and major blood vessels. This process takes around six months, but once they reach their destination, the worms can grow up to 14 inches long. If this isn't bad enough, the worms also reproduce and release young heartworms into the dog’s blood, increasing the chance of them spreading the infection, via mosquitoes, to other dogs.

Symptoms of heartworm range from coughing and an intolerance to exercise, to anaemia and fainting spells, while your vet may also discover other symptoms such as high blood pressure and a rapid heartbeat. In most cases, a blood test will diagnose a heartworm infection, but your dog may also require urine analysis and an ECG , which will reveal any disturbances in your dog’s heart beat and determine whether it can safely undergo treatment.

The best way to stop your dog from getting heartworm is to give it a regular preventative medicine. But if they are unfortunate enough to develop heartworm, treatment is complex involving a number of different treatments over a long period of time.

Following the treatment, it’s vital that your dog is retested to make sure all the worms and their larvae are dead. If not, a repeat course will be necessary. However, not every case of heartworm can be treated with medicine. In some severe cases, surgery might be necessary, where the vet will physically remove the worms from the heart and its surrounding blood vessels.

Once considered to be a problem confined to countries with a tropical climate, cases of heartworm are now found in many areas around the world, making preventative medication vital for your dog when travelling.

Did you know…
US indie pop band The Shins called their 2017 album Heartworms. It's not their best but it's better than your dog getting heartworm.

Speak to your vet for advice on the best ways to prevent heartworm in dogs.

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