April is Heartworm Awareness month, so it’s the ideal time to raise the topic with clients. Start a discussion to discover how much your clients know about heartworm disease and help fill in the gaps.

While good nutrition and the importance of regular exercise are pretty easy areas of pet health to chat to clients about, it’s essential to also cover the trickier topics—such as heartworm.

Indeed, some clients really don’t recognise the need for regular heartworm prevention medication for their pets. As pet professionals, it’s part of your duty of care to educate pet parents and raise awareness of this pesky parasite.

Talking heartworm

When raising the topic of heartworm disease with clients and customers, it’s important they understand the basics. Certainly, many pet owners are not aware of how heartworm is transmitted.

A post on Vet HQ (referencing the PawClub, Australian Dog Owner Survey, Weber Shandwick, December 2015) reveals that 1 in 3 dog owners falsely believe heartworm infection is transmitted via birds or food.

Furthermore, despite almost all the respondents recognising that heartworm can be fatal, 8% confessed to not using any heartworm prevention and 64% admitted to administering monthly heartworm medication after the due date.

Perhaps then, there is little surprise that 40% of reported heartworm cases are in dogs that are on monthly preventative treatment. And let’s not forget that cats can also contract heartworm.

5 heartworm facts to share with clients

1. Heartworm transmission

FACT: Heartworm disease is transmitted via infected mosquitoes.

While we know that heartworm disease can affect dogs and cats, it can also live in ferrets, foxes and sea lions. We most often think about heartworm disease in relation to dogs, as our barking buddies are a natural host; the larvae mature into adult worms, mate and yield offspring.

However, it’s a different story in cats. Because our feline friends are an uncharacteristic host for heartworm disease, it’s far less likely that the worms will reach adulthood. Nonetheless, they can still do a great deal of damage and, more so, the disease is much more likely to go unnoticed.

2. Heartworm life cycle

FACT: Understanding the life cycle of heartworms can help pet owners provide the necessary treatment and prevention.

The cycle begins when a mosquito bites an infected animal. It ingests microscopic infantile worms (microfilaria), which mature over a period of 10-14 days into infectious larvae. When the infected mosquito then bites a dog or cat it releases the infected larvae into the animal’s bloodstream.

It takes approximately 4-6 months for the larvae to mature into adult heartworms. Once fully developed, the adult heartworm can live for 5-7 years in dogs and for approximately 2-3 years in cats.

3. The signs

FACT: The longer the larvae have to mature, the more likely it is for symptoms to develop.

Signs of heartworm in dogs include mild persistent cough, reluctance to exercise, fatigue after moderate activity, decreased appetite, and weight loss.

Signs of heartworm in cats can include coughing, asthma-like attacks, periodic vomiting, lack of appetite, or weight loss.

4. Treatment

FACT: There are treatments for heartworm in dogs but there are no treatments for cats. However, there is medicine to address the side effects of heartworm in cats.

To kill heartworm in dogs, a series of injections with the drug melarsomine are required. However, the dog may first need treatment for heart and/or lung disease, which has presented as a result of the infection.

5. Prevention

FACT: Prevention is always the best cure, but particularly when it comes to heartworm disease.

Preventative treatments are available as monthly pills or topical medication. Alternatively, owners can take their fur pal to the vet for an injection.

One final fact to share with your clients…

Preventative medication doesn’t kill adult heartworm. It kills the larvae. As such, if pet owners don’t administer the treatment on time, they are putting their dog or cat at risk of developing the disease.

There are apps available to help pet owners give their furry friends their medication on time. Alternatively, you may wish to discuss the option of yearly heartworm injections. For some owners, this will help take away the stress of administering monthly treatments.

How knowledgeable about heartworm are your clients?

Information sources:

  • Survey reveals dog owners don’t understand heartworm. Vet HQ. Accessed online April 2021 via: http://vethq.com.au/survey-reveals-dog-owners-dont-understand-heartworm/
  • Heartworm basics. American Heartworm Society. Accessed online April 2021 via: https://www.heartwormsociety.org/pet-owner-resources/heartworm-basics
  • Heartworm disease in pets. Greencross Vets. Accessed online April 2021 via: https://www.greencrossvets.com.au/pet-library/articles-of-interest/heartworm-disease/
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Liz has a passion for all things cat and dog, and was one of the first in Australia to bring Pet Insurance to the market. She has headed up Petsecure for the past 12 years, and is committed to promoting and supporting the amazing work done by rescue groups around Australia, and those who work to promote a better life for all animals.

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