For the love of you pet: April is heartworm awareness month

Canine heartworm infection is very widespread throughout the U.S. The Gulf Coast has the highest incidence of infection, which is up to 45 percent of dogs not maintained with heartworm prevention.

Heartworms are unlike other worms that you may think of in your pet. These worms circulate in the infected animal's bloodstream in the immature stage, in which they can be sucked up by feeding mosquitoes. Once the mosquito has sucked up infected blood, it can bite a new host and transfer the immature worms into the new host's bloodstream.

This is when the monthly heartworm preventative comes into play. If a dog or cat is on preventative and is bitten by an infected mosquito, the preventative will kill the immature stage of the heartworm. If the pet is not on a preventative when it is bitten by an infected mosquito, the immature worms will begin to mature into adults. During the maturation phase, the worms stop circulating in the bloodstream and make the heart their new home. Once in the heart, they can cause muscle atrophy and the heart valves to work insufficiently.

These mature worms are then able to mate and make more immature heartworms to circulate in the bloodstream. A mosquito comes along, acquires immature heartworms, and then the cycle continues. Keeping your pet on heartworm preventative is a must in South Texas, and it should be started in pets at 12 weeks of age. Even if your pet never goes outside, they should still be on a preventative. Mosquitoes can make their way inside our cars, homes and businesses without any problem.

April is heartworm awareness month, so it is a great time to visit with your local veterinarian for heartworm testing. Once a pet that is not on preventative is bitten by an infected mosquito, a positive test result can be seen in five to seven months. Pets with an early infection may show no changes in behavior and no clinical signs.

Dogs with mild to moderate heartworm disease may have a cough and exercise intolerance. Severe infection can lead to heart failure, fluid accumulation in the abdomen, temporary loss of consciousness, difficulty breathing and even death.

Dogs should be tested for heartworms every 12 months. Preventive medications can be harmful or fatal to a dog that has an adult heartworm infection, so it is very important that dogs be tested before starting a preventive program.

There is a wide variety of products available - some prevent only heartworms while others prevent flea infestations and internal parasites. Don't forget that heartworm prevention should be given year-round.

Dr. Shana Bohac has a veterinary practice at Hill crest Animal Hospital in Victoria. She works on both small animals and equine patients. Submit questions to drshanabohac@hotmail.com.