Many people think that only dogs get heartworm disease. While it is true that dogs are the more natural, biological host for the disease, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t present a risk to your furry feline. You may have the misconception that the effects of the disease would be the same in both species of pets too. Although there are definitely some similarities, there are also some glaring differences.
If you are a cat owner, you may not have given much consideration to the prospect of heartworm disease before. However, we believe that all owners should have the benefit of being properly informed about the risks that their pet faces. Since April is heartworm awareness month, here is what you need to know about feline heartworm disease.
What are heartworms?
Heartworms are a blood-borne parasite that live in the heart, lungs and adjacent blood vessels of the animals that they infect. Although they start off as microscopic organisms known as microfilaria, within 6 months they grow into adults that are around a foot long and 5/6mm wide. Once they reach adulthood, they can mate and reproduce. In dogs, this leads to large numbers of worms accumulating. However, it is typical for cats to only have one or two worms in their body. These adult heartworms will live in the heart, lungs and adjacent blood vessels of your feline.
Heartworms are spread by mosquitos, which ingest some heartworm larvae when they feed off of an infected animal. The larvae are then passed to your feline when they feed on her. There are as many as 30 species of mosquito that can transmit heartworm larvae and since it is impossible to tell whether a mosquito is a carrier before it bites your cat, it is recommended that all felines are properly protected against heartworm disease.
The effects of heartworms on cats
The biggest effect that heartworms have on cats is on their respiratory system. As we know, heartworms typically take up residence in the heart, lungs and associated blood vessels of their host. Your cat is no exception. As such, heartworm disease primarily affects the respiratory system of cats who contract it. When your feline’s body realizes that there is a problem with her lung function, her immune system will go into overdrive. The result of this is huge levels of inflammation that cause a condition that is known as heartworm associated respiratory distress or HARD for short.
Symptoms of heartworm disease in cats
Common symptoms of heartworm disease in cats include the following:
- Difficulty breathing
- Rapid breathing
- Weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Intermittent vomiting that is unrelated to eating
Unfortunately, just like dogs, our felines are very good at masking any signs of illness that they have. Combined with the fact that not all cats will get all the symptoms listed above, it can make it fairly difficult to recognize that she may be infected.
Diagnosing feline heartworm disease
Diagnosing heartworm disease in cats is also different to how the condition is officially diagnosed in dogs. In canines, a blood test called an antigen test is performed. This looks for specific antigens which are produced by adult female heartworms. However, since felines typically only have one or two adult worms of which there are no guarantee either are female, antigen tests often show negative even when there are heartworms present. As such, in order to diagnose heartworm disease in cats it is recommended that the antigen test is performed alongside a heartworm antibody test. This determines whether your cat’s immune system has been exposed to heartworms by showing that it is currently reacting to an active infection.
In addition to the tests listed above, another diagnostic tool known as an eosinophil count can also be used to diagnose heartworms. This checks for a type of white blood cell that increases in number when certain parasites, including heartworms, are present. Finally, x-rays may also be requested. These will allow your vet in Murrayville, GA to look at the heart and lungs to check for any abnormalities that may suggest the presence of heartworms.
In combination, the tests above can all be used to help determine the presence of heartworms in your cat.
Treating heartworm disease in cats
At the present time, there is no approved drug for treating heartworms in cats. While some veterinarians in Murrayville, GA have used the same drugs used to treat dogs, there is a considerable degree of risk attached since the sudden death of a single adult heartworm in cats could cause shock, sudden lung or heart failure and many felines who have been treated this way haven’t survived. As such, many vets prefer to treat the symptoms of heartworms and try and keep them under control, hoping that the cat out lives the worms (which have a lifespan of approximately three years in felines).
If you would like to learn more about feline heartworm disease, our friendly and experienced vets would be happy to answer your questions. Please contact Murrayville Animal Hospital at 678-392-3700 today.