Beyond Nine Lives: Taking Heartworm Precautions

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This is a sponsored post by veterinarian Elizabeth Arguelles, owner of Just Cats Clinic at Lake Anne Plaza. She writes weekly on Reston Now.

Heartworm is a parasitic disease that can be deadly to cats. Though it occurs more frequently in dogs, you should take precautions to ensure that it does not develop in your cat.

The disease is transmitted by mosquitoes. When an insect carrying heartworm bites your cat, the parasites’ larvae pass into your cat’s bloodstream. If the cat is not on preventative medication, the larvae then develop into worms that can live in the right side of the heart and the pulmonary arteries. This process usually takes about eight months.

It is a common misperception that only outdoor cats are at risk of contracting heartworm. Any cat can get the parasite if bitten by an infected mosquito, and indoor cats in areas with mosquitoes are no safer than outdoor cats.

Unfortunately, there are no clinical signs that clearly indicate that your cat has heartworm disease. A cat with heartworm might start coughing suddenly and breathing more rapidly. However, these can also be signs of other diseases such as asthma or respiratory infections. The following table lists both acute and chronic clinical signs of heartworm, but please remember that these may also be indicators of other diseases.

Acute clinical signs: collapse, dyspnea, convulsions, diarrhea/vomiting, blindness, tachycardia (faster than normal heart rate while resting), loss of consciousness and sudden death.

Chronic clinical signs: coughing, vomiting, dyspnea, lethargy, anorexia, weight loss and pleural effusion resulting from fluid accumulation.

Whether those turn out to be signs of heartworm or not, please seek immediate medical attention if your cat shows any of these symptoms. Your vet will likely run blood tests to determine if the parasite is present, but many of these tests are not accurate and will not completely rule out the diagnosis.

If heartworms are present, there is unfortunately no cure and treatment can be difficult. Your vet will treat the symptoms, but unfortunately there is a risk your cat could die of pulmonary failure during the worm’s lifespan.

So what’s the good news in all of this? Preventing heartworm disease is extremely easy and helps to ensure your cat stays happy and healthy. Many heartworm preventatives are simple topical medications applied once monthly to the back of your cat’s neck. While there are a variety of heartworm preventatives on the market, they aren’t all effective or safe.

Always ask your vet about the different options available for your cat. Also by buying the product directly from your vet’s office, many manufacturers offer a guarantee and back their product 100 percent. Some will even pay for your cat’s treatment should they contract heartworms while on the preventative, or will even refund your money if your cat ends up having an allergy or sensitivity to the preventative.

For more information, please visit the Feline Health Library on our website:

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