April marks the start of a couple of very important events on the veterinary calendar – it is National Heartworm Awareness Month and Prevention of Lyme Disease in Dogs Month! One of the biggest elements of pet ownership is educating yourself about the illnesses and diseases facing your pet, so that you know that you are doing everything in your power to keep your precious animal healthy and safe from harm.
Heartworms and ticks (which are carriers of the Lyme disease) are two of the most common types of parasite that can affect your animal. As such it is essential that you learn how to identify that your pet has been affected, what treatment is available and, most importantly, what you can do to prevent your beloved furbaby from contracting the parasites in the first place.
Heartworms are an internal parasite that live inside your pet’s heart and lungs. Heartworms are spread by mosquitoes. Just one bite from an infected mosquito can deposit dozens of heartworm larvae into your pet’s body. They then migrate to the blood vessels of her heart and lungs, so they can mature into adults. Fully-grown, heartworms resemble cooked spaghetti and can reach 12 inches in length. They can also reproduce, and so without treatment, increasing quantities of heartworms will accumulate inside your pet, slowly causing irreversible respiratory and cardiac damage. Eventually, death will occur.
Symptoms of heartworms
One of the trickiest things about heartworms is recognizing that your pet has been affected. Symptoms are notoriously subtle and can easily be overlooked. Often, heartworms aren’t diagnosed until the mid or even latter stages of the disease.
Nevertheless, there are signs and symptoms that you can watch for, and these include:
- A soft, dry cough
- Unwillingness to exercise
- Difficulty catching breath
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
In rare cases the worms may get into your pet’s brain. If this happens, she may experience seizures, blindness and lose consciousness.
If you have any reason to suspect that your pet has heartworms, you should seek an appointment with our veterinarian as soon as possible. A simple blood panel should enable a professional to identify the presence of heartworms.
Fortunately, it is possible to treat heartworms. This involves your pet having a combination of medications that kill off the worms at every stage of their lifecycle, as well as antibiotics and steroids to help reduce any inflammation or infection. The treatment program usually takes at least 5-6 weeks and can be complex and painful for your pet. In many cases, animals are left with permanent damage that requires ongoing medication and care.
Ticks are external parasites that live on the outside of your pet’s body. Unlike heartworms, they are not transmitted by a host. Instead they drop on to your pet’s body from trees or long grass or hitch a lift as your pet brushes past. While not all ticks are infected with Lyme disease, they can still cause their host to experience an allergic-style reaction. Unfortunately, ticks can transmit any infections that they are carrying to humans as well as animals, meaning that your entire household is at risk.
Ticks look like tiny dark-colored bugs no more than 3-5mm big. However, as they consume the blood of their host they double in size, making them easier to spot.
Signs that your pet has a tick
It is often possible to spot a tick by checking carefully though your pet’s fur. However, your pet may also exhibit symptoms that suggest they have developed a tick-borne disease (which could include Lyme disease). Humans experience similar symptoms too, which may include:
- A red spot or rash near the bite site
- Full body rash
- Stiffness/aching muscles
- Swollen lymph nodes
If you suspect that your pet or someone in your household has been bitten by a tick and presents with any of the above symptoms, you should seek the advice of your doctor or vet as soon as possible.
Ticks can be removed manually from their host. However, this should be done very carefully with a specialist tick removal tool as this will help ensure that the parasite is removed entirely, and no infected blood has been spread the host or the person removing it. Once the tick has been removed, you can either pop it into a sealed container and take it to our vet for analysis or kill it by flushing it down the toilet. Never crush a tick as potentially infected blood may come into contact with your skin.
Preventative treatment for heartworms and ticks
Fortunately, there are a range of different preventative treatments that can help to keep your pet, and in the case of ticks, your whole family safe from the effects of these parasites. Our experienced veterinary team will be happy to discuss the different options available to your pet with you and recommend a comprehensive schedule of preventive care that ensures your furbaby is protected all year round. Please give us a call at 678-392-3700 to schedule your appointment.