Feline Heartworm Disease

Once just a disease of dogs, heartworms are now recognized as a threat to cats.

Posted: Tue Dec 17 00:00:00 PST 2002

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Feline heartworm disease is caused by the parasite Dirofilaria immitis. Heartworms thrive in areas of the United States, Latin America, Asia and Europe where mosquitoes are most prevalent. Warm, humid climates, such as those in the southeastern United States, are ideal. The disease is carried by a mosquito that draws blood from a heartworm-infected dog. The mosquito acts as an intermediate host, then regurgitates the larvae on a cat. Generally, affected cats do not infect other cats-the disease must pass from a dog to a mosquito to a cat. Both indoor cats and outdoor cats are at risk.

Logically, it seems the best solution for curing cats of heartworm disease would be to kill the worms. Unfortunately, when a worm dies and begins to deteriorate, small pieces of it can clog the arteries, resulting in pulmonary embolism and death. Caparsolate (thiacetarsemide), the drug that has been used to treat dogs for many years, can also be used for cats but the mortality rate of cats on Caparsolate is about the same as those not treated. Owners are usually given medication to administer for certain symptoms. An operation is a last resort. William P. Barclay, DVM, partner and chief of surgery of the Cat Hospital in Illinois, says he will consider surgery only when the patient has seven to 12 worms and he knows the cat will not survive on its own.

Prevention is the best way to keep heartworms out of a cat's life. The sole preventive on the market, Heartgard by Merck, is available only from licensed veterinarians. A monthly treatment, Heartgard kills heartworm larvae. It can be given alone or mixed with food, and comes in two formulas based on the cat's weight. The cost is about $3 a month.

If your cat exhibits one of the following symptoms-coughing, gagging, labored breathing, repeated vomiting, lack of appetite, weight loss, lethargy, central nervous system disorders, blindness or heart murmur-talk to your veterinarian. You may want to get your cat tested or start it on a preventive medicine.

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Reader Comments

janet    bethlehem, PA

5/21/2010 4:08:16 AM

good article thank you

Lena    Lula, GA

4/12/2008 7:00:50 AM

My cat Tinker was a feral until at age 7 months I had him tamed enough to get a FULL checkup and neutering and vaccines. He slipped out of house one day to help me work in flower beds and I could not get him in before I had to go to work. When I cam home he was at door waiting to go in. I would not let him back with the other cats until I checked him over for fleas, bites ticks, ets. In doing so I found he had lesions in his mouth. He had never showed sign of a problem. I took him to the Vets I work part time with ( I have worked in Veterinary Medicine since 1981 at the same clinic) and asked for a biopsy of the gums and a Total Feline Health Check and Heart Worm check as it was only 5 more dollars.( what is 5 dollars when you are already spending 300.00) The biopsy revealed Eosinophilic Granuloma Complex; He was negative for FIV,FELV, TOXO but positive for heartworms. The test Antech did only checked for the exposure. We had to do another test to see if he had active heartworm disease. He was negative but it could mean he only has male worms. My cats were on Heartguard but I feel sure he got expose when living as a wild feral. I live each day worrying that he will suddenly die. The research I have done shows that a lot of cats diagnosed with asthma when tested have heart worms causing their difficulty breathing. I think all cats should be put on heart worm preventive as soon as old enough. Research also revealed that 30% of heartworm positivve cats had live indoors all their lives. This is not just an outside cat disease.
Lena Turner

Vicki    Raymond, MS

2/21/2008 2:24:39 PM

Cat's used to not get heartworms, so I thought. Even worked at a Vet., in the 1970's and at that time there were no such thing as heart worm prevention for cats!! Good information that I needed to hear and learn

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