If you have both dogs and cats in your household, you may have already read my blog on heartworms for dogs. But you might not know the whole story. Heartworms also can affect cats, too, but they affect felines differently than the disease does in dogs. So, don’t skip reading this just because you read what you need to know about heartworm disease in dogs. Your cat and I thank you.
Statistically, Heartworm Disease is still relatively a low risk- but low risk is not zero risk. About one in 100 cats tested in Hillsborough County test positive for Heartworms. This is a small number, but veterinarians rarely test for Heartworms unless there are symptoms. Testing for dogs is much more common, and the stats are about the same, close to 1% testing positive.
It’s important to know that cats are at risk, just like dogs are. Although dogs are at a higher risk of suffering severe consequences, the disease can be just as devastating to our feline friends. Heartworm disease is spread by mosquitoes, which happens when a mosquito feeds on (bites) an animal already infected with heartworms. The mosquito can pick up the disease from either an infected dog, or cat or other host. (Not all mosquitoes carry heartworm microfilariae, but all mosquitoes can) It’s the same disease, but cats are an uncommon host. Heartworms have a hard time making it to the adult stage in cats, but that doesn’t mean they can’t cause real problems for them. Cats with adult heartworms typically have only one to three adult worms- compared to potentially hundreds found in an infected dog. But immature worms cause problems in cats, too. Infected cats often find themselves with Heartworm Associated Respiratory Disease, which as it’s name indicates- affects the respiratory system.
Once the disease starts to take hold within a cat, there are very few options. The options for treatment in a dog are effective, but expensive and lengthy. Outside of a highly risky (and expensive) surgery, there is no proven treatment for heartworm disease for cats, just management of the symptoms.
What is heartworm and how does it affect cats?
When a mosquito deposits heartworm larvae on a cat’s skin through biting, the larvae automatically make their way into the blood stream and wind up in the heart or the blood vessels in the lungs. It can take several years before a pet owner starts seeing signs that something is wrong with their cat, and by this time, serious internal damage may have already occurred.
Signs that a cat is infected with heartworm disease generally center around the respiratory and pulmonary systems, with coughing, wheezing and labored breathing among the most common early signs. Congestive heart failure may develop over time, presenting with fluid buildup in the gut and the extremities.
When I diagnose a cat with heartworm, my primary concern is treating the symptoms as they show up. Keeping the animal as comfortable as possible is the important goal.
You can prevent heartworm in cats
It’s sad when a beautiful pet is afflicted by heartworm, but the good news for owners of healthy cats is they can keep those cats healthy – at least where heartworm is concerned – by placing their pets on an affordable, monthly dose of a highly effective heartworm preventative- which is often combined with a flea prevention.
At Tampa Veterinary Hospital, we encourage all cat owners to begin their pets at a young age on a heartworm preventative. If you rescue or adopt an older cat, initiating heartworm treatment should be done on your first visit with us. Remember: medication won’t kill adult worms inside the animal, but it will prevent any new worms from getting in there and setting up shop.
If your cat is showing symptoms that may be connected to heartworm, you should not delay in making an appointment with a licensed veterinarian. And a vet visit should always be at the top of the list for those bringing a new cat into their home.