Pet Heartworm Awareness

  • By Pets in Need
  • 16 Oct, 2017
Heartworm is a serious, potentially fatal disease for our pets. Prevention is easy, but treatment can be costly and difficult depending on the stage of the disease. Pets In Need veterinarian and board member, Dr. Jack Walkenhorst discusses the importance of heartworm prevention.

What is heartworm disease and how do our pets become infected?

Adult heartworms are roundworms that live in the heart, lungs and surrounding arteries of infected animals. Heartworm disease is transmitted by a mosquito bite. Mosquitos carry the infected larval form of the worm and transfer it to our pets. Once the larva have been transferred, it takes up to 7 months for them to mature into adult heartworms. Dogs should be on a preventative medication throughout the year to avoid the effects of heartworms, which can include heart failure and irreversible damage to other organs.

All dogs are at risk for contracting heartworms if they’re not on a preventative.

Although heartworm disease is more prevalent is areas with high mosquito populations, heartworm disease has been diagnosed in all 50 states. Dogs are natural hosts of heartworms, which means all heartworm larva contracted by the dog will likely mature into adult heartworms that live for 5 -7 years. Heartworm disease can cause lasting damage to the heart, lungs and arteries, which is why prevention is always better than treatment.


Many dogs show little to no symptoms during the early stages of heartworm disease. This is one reason annual testing is so important. Once the disease progresses, symptoms in dogs may include a chronic cough, lethargy, weight loss, and fatigue after moderate activity. If left untreated, heartworm disease can progress, causing irreversible organ damage and fatal heart failure. The good news is heartworms are treatable in dogs, although the treatment can be costly and difficult. Identifying the disease early is critical, so talk to your veterinarian right away if your dog has developed any of theses symptoms.


Heartworms are easy to prevent in both dogs and cats. Your vet will prescribe a pill, chewable or spot-on liquid that protects your pet from heartworms and possibly various other parasites. Talk with your veterinarian to learn your prevention options and determine the best fit for your lifestyle and pets. Some people wonder if there’s a holistic or home remedy to heartworm prevention. Although there are some online sources that claim otherwise, there are no at-home treatments that have proven efficacy.

How do they work?

It can be surprising to learn that heartworm preventatives don’t actually prevent your pet from contracting heartworm larva. When your pet takes a heartworm preventative, it works to kill off any heartworm larva that made it into your pet’s body in the last 50 days. Therefore, if your pet misses just one dose of medication because you forgot, or they spit it up and you didn’t see, etc., any potential larva in your pet’s body will begin to develop into adult heartworms. If your pet contracts heartworms during the window of time that it was unprotected, any larva present in the body will likely be too mature to be killed by the next dose of preventatives. However, it will take up to 7 months for the larva to develop into adult heartworms that can be detected during a heartworm test. Again, this is why annual tests are so important.

What should I do if my pet missed a dose?

If your pet missed a dose or multiple doses of heartworm preventatives, it’s best to immediately re-start the treatment. It’s advised that pet owners schedule a heartworm test 7 months later, to detect any adult heartworms that develop from potential larva contracted by the pet while they were unprotected. Subsequent annual testing is highly recommended for dogs.

Starting heartworm preventatives:

All dogs 7 months of age or older should have a heartworm test before starting preventative. A heartworm test is not required prior to starting cats on heartworm preventative, but is recommended for cats showing symptoms of heartworm disease. Dogs should then have an ongoing annual heartworm test. If you have a new puppy, it’s advised to start them on heartworm medication immediately. However, the initial heartworm test isn’t needed until they’re at least 7 months old, because any larva they may have contracted won’t be detectable until they develop into adult heartworms.

About Pets In Need:

Pets In Need, a 501(c) (3) nonprofit organization, is committed to helping pets stay healthy and together with the people who love them. Pets In Need provides low-cost veterinary care and food for pets from homes in which income is at or below 150% of the federal poverty level. The clinic is the only resource of its kind in Greater Cincinnati and currently serves cats and dogs from hundreds of low-income households. To learn more about Pets In Need and the services it provides, please visit

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