Heartworm Symptoms That All Dog Owners Should Recognize
When dogs are first bitten by mosquitoes infected with heartworm microfilaria (Dirofilaria immitis), they show no symptoms. That stage lasts for six months! By the time your dog is showing symptoms, things have been going on for a long time, so recognize these symptoms as soon as they start.
What are the symptoms in the different stages (classes) of heartworm disease?
- Class 1: Your dog may not even have symptoms at this stage. He might have mild symptoms like an occasional cough.
- Class 2: Things are getting a little worse. His symptoms are usually still mild, like an occasional cough, and he might be more tired than you would expect after very light exercise, like just running around the yard chasing a ball.
- Class 3: At this point, your dog will start losing weight, be tired most of the time, and will cough more often. He will probably faint occasionally and show signs of congestive heart failure, like ascites (fluid on the abdomen).
- Class 4: The heartworms are causing a blockage at this stage so the symptoms are severe. He will experience constant coughing, exhaustion, and weight loss because he will find it uncomfortable to eat. When your dog is at this stage, known as the caval syndrome, it might be too late to save him. You have no excuse to let a dog reach Class 4.
What To Do Next
If you do recognize the symptoms of heartworm disease, the first thing to do is take your dog in to the vet for a heartworm test. Find out what to do next.
Alternatives for a Heartworm Positive Dog
The first thing you need to do is take your dog in to your veterinarian and have his blood tested. If the antigen test is positive that indicates he has been infected with heartworms. He probably has at least fifteen, but maybe as many as several hundred adult worms in the heart.
If your dog is tested positive, do not start worrying; There are alternatives.
1. The first alternative, and the one suggested by most veterinarians, will be to give your dog injections of immiticide, an arsenic injection that goes into the muscles of the dogs back and causes the adult heartworms to die off. It is the quickest way to get rid of the problem and the worms cause less damage to the heart but is also expensive and can be dangerous. If you take your dog home and she runs around she can cause the dead worms to be broken off in a mass. The mass can cause a blockage in her lungs, and she can die.
2. The other alternative is to put your dog on a safe heartworm therapy. She is given ivermectin every month for several years. This does not cause the adults to die—they go on infecting your dog´s heart. It does keep them from reproducing, however, and when all the adults die your dog will be heartworm free.
This treatment is not recommended by most veterinarians since the adult worms are not killed. They will go on infecting your dog, and if she already has clinical heart disease most vets want those worms out of there as soon as possible.
3. The last alternative is to use safe herbal heartworm therapy. There is controversy on whether this therapy is effective, but if you are against giving your dog chemicals (like ivermectin) it is an alternative. Like safe heartworm therapy, this will not kill the adults.
How Long Will My Dog Live With Heartworm?
Your dog´s life expectancy after being diagnosed with heartworm is not really known. Some dogs will have a small burden and live for years. Smaller dogs can develop congestive heart failure with only a few worms in the heart and will die within a few months.
You will have to decide which of the alternative treatments to use based on the size of your dog and the degree of damage already done to your dog´s heart.
How To Prevent Your Dog From Becoming Infected
You should have your dog on a heartworm preventative. Unfortunately some dog owners do not prevent heartworm disease because the manufacturers of heartworm preventative charge a big mark-up, and then the veterinarians that distribute this product charge another mark-up.
If you cannot afford the prices your vet charges, the alternative is to buy a large supply of ivermectin, the heartworm prevention available in Heartgard. You still need to dose your dog monthly, and the product is so cheap that I recommend you do so throughout the year. The chance of your dog getting infected in the winter is minimal, but so is the cost of the drug, and in my opinion it is not worth the risk.
You can buy a sheep formula online or purchase it from your local feed store. The doses are available in my other article on cheap heartworm prevention. If you have a Collie or other herding dog breed this may not be right for you. You can read more details about testing in the other article.
If you do not want to give your dog monthly ivermectin, there are also some holistic vets that recommend an oral herbal heartworm preventative. I do not recommend this and believe you are taking unnecessary risks with your dog´s health. If you want the various formulas you can speak to your holistic vet or look at another site.
Will your dog become infected with heartworm?
If you keep your dog on heartworm preventative every month you do not need to pay for yearly testing. Some states and regions (like Georgia and the Mississippi valley), however, have reported an increase in heartworms resistant to the traditional preventatives, like ivermectin. If you live in Georgia, Alabama, or the lower Mississippi valley area, please read up on preventing resistant heartworm.
This is a preventable disease. Do something about it today.