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Posted on 08-15-2018

Heartworms and Your Cat

The number of pets diagnosed with heartworms is on the rise. Between 2013 and 2016 the canine heartworm numbers rose by more than 21 percent, according to the American Heartworm Society (AHS). This potentially deadly disease can cause massive organ failure. In addition, heartworm disease can impact the animal's lungs, blood vessels, and heart.

Even though dogs are the natural host for this dangerous parasite, they aren't the only animals that are affected. Along with wild animals, such as foxes and sea lions, cats can also contract heartworm disease.

If you have a cat, then you need to know about heartworm protection. Don’t assume this serious pet problem is something that only dog owners need to deal with. This guide answers some of the most common cat-related questions about heartworms.

What Are Heartworms?

Heartworms are parasites that can grow up to one-foot inside of their host. Even though dogs are the natural host, these worms can also invade other mammals. As a parasite, these worms need a suitable host to live and grow.

Heartworms live inside of their host, and they also breed there. This means it only takes a few worms to grow into a major infestation. The worms move through the body, living in blood vessels, the animal's heart, or even the lungs.

Can Cats Get Heartworm Disease Too?

Yes, heartworms can affect cats. Given that cats aren't the worms' natural host, the parasite doesn’t thrive in felines the way they do in canines. This often means that a serious infestation won't happen in a cat.

Instead of hundreds of worms (as you'd expect to find in an infected dog), cats may have less than ten worms. Many of the worms that infect cats won't survive long enough to grow fully into adults.

Infected dogs (or other infected animals) will not directly pass this disease on to your cat — mosquitos pass heartworm infections from animal to animal.

What Problems Do Heartworms Cause In Cats?

Even though heartworms won't grow into full adult parasites in the cat's body, they can still cause serious health issues. Young worms can cause inflammation in the arteries inside of the cat's lungs. Along with arterial damage, this invasion can cause problems in the cat's airways and with the air sacs that are responsible for gas exchange inside of the lungs.

Heartworm associated respiratory disease (HARD) has an impact on the cat’s whole body. For example, decreasing the cat's ability to breathe adequately can make the heart work harder. This strain can result in serious cardiac complications.

What Are the Feline Symptoms of Heartworm Infection?

Heartworm disease may be more difficult to spot in cats than dogs. The symptoms often include difficulty breathing (or rapid breathing), coughing, or gastrointestinal issues such as diarrhea and vomiting. These symptoms are all easy to confuse with signs of other feline medical conditions, making it absolutely essential that a veterinarian examine the animal as soon as possible.

How Is Heartworm Diagnosed in Cats?

Only a qualified veterinarian can evaluate and diagnose your cat for this disease. Along with a physical exam, the vet will likely perform a chest X-ray and blood tests for antibodies to the worms.

How Is Heartworm Treated in Cats?

To treat heartworm disease in dogs, your vet will inject drugs that can destroy the worms — however, these medications do not have the same effect in cats.

Some cats will spontaneously recover without any medical intervention. If this does not happen, the vet can reduce the effects of the symptoms with oxygen therapy, IV fluids, or medications that help with cardiovascular issues. However, these treatments will not remove the parasites or provide a cure.

Without a true treatment, prevention is critical. Your veterinarian can prescribe an oral or topical preventative treatment against this disease.

Do you have more questions about heartworms and your cat? Contact our team at Columbine Animal Hospital for more information.

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