Mosquitos. Let’s face it, here in Texas, they will forever be an obnoxious pest. Often they are just annoying blood suckers that irritate our summer evenings, but sometimes they can become much more dangerous, spreading diseases like the West Nile Virus, Yellow Fever, and Malaria. But, what most pet owners do not realize is that a mosquito does not just prefer to feast upon our warm, abundantly available blood, but they also like to snack on our beloved animals as well. Yes, that’s right, even the hairy ones. And, furthermore, it is not just a pesky nuisance for them, either, but can be very dangerous as well. A mosquito often times carry what veterinarians call Dirofilaria immitis, or what is commonly known as heartworms.
“So, just what are these worms that are so dangerous and why is it so important for me to know about?” you may ask. This is not some small risk to your animal’s health that veterinarians harp about just to ring up business. Heartworms are a very serious matter. Unlike some of the other common intestinal worms that most people are more aware of like tape worms, hook worms, and round worms that just mainly affect the intestinal tract, heartworms, over time, will affect almost all major organs of the body and, if untreated, will eventually cause death. It all begins with a small, seemingly insignificant, bite of a mosquito, and the highest number of reported cases occur within 150 miles of the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic coastlines and along the Mississippi River. That’s right, if you live in Texas that puts you in the hot zone for heartworms. After that infected mosquito bites your animal, the larvae migrate through the blood vessels and go straight to the heart where they bed down and make themselves at home. While in the heart, those little larvae grow up and graduate to adults and begin mating and making their very own little babies. The precious little family, being the parasites that they are, just keep multiplying over the next few months and years. One of the dangerous things about heartworms is that, unless you are getting the recommended yearly heartworm test done at your local veterinarian office, you don’t realize this little party is going on in your pet’s heart until the infestation is in advanced stages. Some of those signs and symptoms include a soft, dry cough, shortness of breath, weakness, nervousness, listlessness and loss of stamina, all of which are most noticeable during and after exercise. Adult heartworms can live up to five years and, during that time, produce millions of those babies called microfilaria. These mature heartworms cause disease by clogging the chambers and arteries of the heart and the surrounding blood vessels and the microfilaria travel around the body potentially clogging the smaller arteries and damaging the lungs and liver. Damaged lung tissue leads to coughing. Liver injury leads to cirrhosis of the liver, causing jaundice, anemia and weakness. The kidneys may also be affected and allow toxins to build up in the body. Eventually these parasites will cause congestive heart failure and death. All from a little mosquito bite.
But wait, there’s good news! All of this can be prevented with a simple, relatively inexpensive, heartworm prevention taken once of month or once every six months, and a yearly heartworm test just to make sure, if infected, the disease is caught early. If your animal is diagnosed with heartworms, it is not an automatic death sentence, but it requires a relatively expensive and involved treatment process in which the recovery includes long periods of confinement; and the confinement period is a dangerous time that has its own risks. The prevention is so easily maintained, but the sad fact remains that veterinarians diagnose heartworm disease sometimes multiple times a week in their practices. Please, love those pets and get your animals their prevention today!