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The Silent Killer


Dogs are considered a man’s best friend. Just like humans, dogs can acquire life-threatening diseases. The difference between humans and dogs is the ability to speak. It is more challenging to understand what a dog feels internally, especially regarding illnesses. Most pet parents are in tune with their dog’s routine and abnormal behavior and can distinguish them. Being able to read these signs takes time and experience. Numerous medical tests can confirm the presence of disease in dogs, but the first step is having that gut feeling that something is off. Usually, with the proper medical treatment and disease detection, the dog can get treated promptly to avoid further complications, but that is not always the case. Just like humans, dogs have vaccines and preventatives to minimize the risk of being infected with the disease. After adoption, pet parents are responsible for their dog’s care, well-being, and medical treatment. Most pet parents are thrilled and overjoyed knowing they will be bringing home a new member of the family, but others may feel different and have different views regarding adopting a dog. Dogs provide unconditional love, and we must show them the same passion they give us.


Canine heartworm disease is a severe and potentially fatal medical condition that affects the lungs, heart, and blood vessels in dogs. More than 100,000 dogs are diagnosed with heartworm disease every year. Since 2013, the prevalence of canine heartworm disease in the United States has continuously increased. Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, Tennessee, South Carolina, Georgia, North Carolina, Alabama, and Florida are the top 10 states with the highest number of cases of canine heartworm disease. 


Both domesticated and non-domesticated canines are the most common hosts for the parasite Dirofilaria immitis, also known as heartworm. The disease becomes transmissible after the mosquito ingests blood from a host infected with the parasite D. immitis. Microfilariae enter the mosquito’s system, which causes the parasite to change shape and go through. After the larval stages, L1 to L3, occur, the mosquito can infect the host. The last larval state, L4, creates a rapid production of adult male and female heartworms that travel to the host’s heart and circulatory system where they will continue to mate, producing more and more heartworms. 


Several diagnostic tests and methods are used to confirm a heartworm disease diagnosis. Antigen testing is commonly used for symptomatic and asymptomatic dogs. Manufacturers will provide instructions on performing the test to obtain accurate results. If the antigen test produces a positive impact, it is essential to perform an additional test to confirm the results using a fresh drop of a dog’s blood and viewing it on a slide under a microscope can be used to detect D. immitis. For a more accurate diagnosis, the Modified Knott Test can be used to confirm whether or not microfilariae are present. Radiography and cardiography are other diagnostic methods that can be used as well.


Dogs with heartworm disease can be asymptomatic or symptomatic depending on the severity and progression of the condition. Typical symptoms common in dogs with heartworm disease are persistent cough, lethargy, difficulty exercising, loss of appetite, weight loss, and a swollen abdomen. 


The treatment process for heartworm disease is extensive and lengthy. Prednisone and doxycycline are medications that are initially prescribed as well as a heartworm preventative medication approximately a month after the date of diagnosis. Later in the treatment plan, a total of three melarsomine injections are given intramuscularly, with the first two injections being administered a month apart and the third injection being administered the day after the second injection was administered. Prednisone will continue being prescribed as recommended by a veterinarian. The patient will be given heartworm preventative medication during treatment and will need to continue taking monthly prevention for the rest of their life. After the three injections have been completed, the patient should continue to rest. The presence of microfilariae can be rechecked in 30 days. If there are no microfilariae present, the patient will continue monthly heartworm preventative medication for an entire year and will be retested using an antigen test. After a year, if microfilariae are still not present, the patient will be retested using an antigen test nine months after the day of the last melarsomine injection administration. If microfilariae are present doxycycline will be prescribed, and the patient will receive an additional two melarsomine injections 24 hours apart. 


Canine heartworm disease is preventable. Preventions can be prescribed by a veterinarian and be given monthly to prevent your dog from getting heartworm disease. Along with monthly prevention, annual heartworm tests should be completed as well. In 2022, there were 208,682 positive cases of canine heartworm disease. In 2023, there have been 84,833 positive cases so far.


Edited by: Shahnawaz Chodhry

Photo by: East Valley Animal Hospital

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