Heartworms: It's not just a dog disease

Imagine if you had been granted the opportunity to understand your cat's conversations with other cats. Perhaps your two cats, "Max" and "Holly," are having this discussion while sitting in the living room: "Max wasn't it terrible about Kismet's death _ he was loved and pampered by his humans, taken to the doctor every time his asthma flared up, and then suddenly, without warning, he died. And how about that autopsy report: Heartworms! Who would have ever guessed that Kismet _ much less any cat _ would get this horrible disease?"

"I thought only the slobbering mongrels, i.e. 'dogs,' and their weasel friend, the ferret, got this parasite," stated Max.

"Oh no," said Holly, "there was a program that I watched with our human last month that was frightening. Heartworms were first diagnosed in cats more than 85 years ago yet few humans are even aware that we can get heartworms. Remember all of those mosquitoes we saw this afternoon? Many of them were carrying the heartworm larva and, if you had been bitten by any one of these mosquitoes, you could have contracted this horrible disease. And these `vampires masquerading as insects' seem to live throughout the year in this climate. Anywhere heartworms are found in dogs, they are found in cats, too."

"That's troubling news, but, because we live indoors, we are safe, aren't we?" asked Max.

"Not really," said Holly, "because we sometimes go outside and because mosquitoes sometimes get indoors, we are just as likely to be exposed to mosquitoes and hence, heartworms. And even worse, since we live in a mixed-species family _ you know, where dogs and cats live within the same family _ we are even more likely to be exposed. In a North Carolina study, 28 percent of the cats diagnosed with heartworm were inside-only cats. This is really gross but for us to get heartworms, a mosquito must first drink blood from a dog and then, at a later time, bite us and transfer some of the baby heartworms that it picked up from the dog into us."

With the thoughts of dog blood on his mind, Max retched up a hairball.

Worried, he asked, "How do we know if we have this disgusting worm inside of us?"

"Not to heighten your fears, but vomiting can be a sign of heartworm disease in you and me," said Holly. "Also, coughing, 'asthma-like' episodes, lethargy, weight loss, and 'sudden death' are other signs that we might have heartworms."

Now throwing his tail to and fro, Max is clearly upset. "OK, suppose I wanted to find out if I have heartworms, is there a simple blood test like those simpleton dogs receive?"

Holly, enjoying Max's agitation, answered, "No, we are much too complicated for just one test. Our doctor may have to take X-rays or ultrasound of our lungs or may have to run two blood tests-one to look for antibodies to heartworms and one to look for proteins produced by the heartworm. Most shocking of all is that, if we are diagnosed with heartworms, our only choice for getting rid of these parasites is to let the heartworms die on their own over the next 1-2 years. But this can also increase the possibility of complications, such as lethargy, severe coughing, persistent vomiting and even death."

"The best thing to do is not to get this disease in the first place," said Max. "Aren't there medications we can take to keep us from getting heartworms?"

"Yes, there is a tasty, inexpensive treat called 'Heartgard' that we can eat once a month that works quite well."

"What if I don't like the taste of it?" Max asked.

"There are two topical drugs, 'Revolution' and 'Advantage Multi' that are placed on our neck or head once a month that protects us against heartworms, fleas, intestinal worms and ear mites."

"Wow, I can dig it, but it must be expensive."

Holly, being the avid shopper answered: "Is 50 cents a day too much to spend for this level of protection against this horrible disease? You waste more than that on your silly toys and catnip."

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Dr. Dennis Selig is a veterinarian at Northwood Hills Animal Hospital in Gulfport, Miss. Questions for this column are encouraged. Write to South Mississippi Veterinary Medical Association, 20005 Pineville Road, Long Beach MS 39560 and include a self-addressed stamped envelope.