Heartworm Prevention and Treatment for Dogs

Heartworm disease is a severe and potentially fatal disease in dogs. It’s caused by a parasitic worm called Dirofilaria immitis that lives in the heart and lungs of infected dogs. Mosquitoes transmit heartworm larvae from infected dogs to other dogs, making heartworm disease highly contagious.

How heartworm infection happens

When a mosquito carrying heartworm larvae bites a dog, the larvae enter the dog’s bloodstream and eventually reach the heart and lungs. Over time, the worms grow and can cause damage to these vital organs. Adult heartworms can grow up to 12 inches long, and a single dog can have up to 250 worms in its body.

What signs do I look for that indicate my dog may have heartworms?

Early signs of heartworm disease can be subtle, but the signs become more apparent as the disease progresses. Symptoms of heartworm disease include coughing, fatigue, difficulty breathing, weight loss, and a decreased appetite. In severe cases, dogs may also have a swollen belly or difficulty walking.

How is heartworm infection diagnosed?

Your veterinarian can diagnose heartworm disease through a blood test. The test detects the presence of heartworm proteins in your dog’s blood. If your dog is diagnosed with heartworm disease, your veterinarian may recommend additional tests, such as X-rays or ultrasounds, to determine the severity of the infection.

Why should I restrict my dog’s exercise if he is diagnosed with heartworms?

If your dog is diagnosed with heartworm disease, your veterinarian will likely recommend exercise restriction during the treatment process. Exercise can increase heart rate and blood pressure, making it more difficult for your dog’s heart to pump blood through its body. Exercise restriction can help reduce the risk of complications during treatment.

Traditional ways of treating heartworm

There are two traditional methods of heartworm treatment: a series of injections or topical medication.

Depending on the severity of the heartworm infection, your vet may decide to use a series of injections of a drug called melarsomine. The drug kills adult heartworms in the dog’s body. The injections are given over several weeks. This drug contains arsenic and is FDA-approved to kill adult heartworms in dogs. 

The injection is often painful and can require pain medication and occasionally an overnight stay at the vet. The course is typically an injection, followed by 30 days of rest, another injection, then, 24 hours later, the last injection. After the last injection, there are 4-8 weeks of continued exercise restriction before being retested to see if the dog is still heartworm-positive. 

Considering Alternative Treatment Approaches

A slower and less expensive treatment for dogs with mild heartworm infections is the application of the topical medication doxycycline. This drug is applied to the dog’s skin and absorbed into the bloodstream, killing the heartworm larvae.

This option is not highly recommended because it does not kill all life stages of the parasite. It only prevents the maturation of microfilariae.

Are natural treatments effective at combating heartworm disease?

Like humans, a nutritious diet is crucial for maintaining a robust immune system in dogs. When considering traditional versus holistic treatment options for heartworm, it’s essential to remember this. While some natural remedies have garnered a negative reputation, often due to unsupported online claims, there are alternative options worth exploring. 

It’s important to note that no single “magic bullet” supplement can cure heartworm. However, many holistic veterinarians may suggest combining traditional and alternative treatments with a focus on supporting the immune system. 

While holistic veterinarians have no specific treatment protocol, most have preferred therapies based on their experience. These may include black walnut, believed to help weaken and expel worms, alongside supplements that support the heart, circulation, and immune system.

Ensuring Canine Wellness

Heartworm disease is a severe and potentially fatal disease in dogs. However, with regular heartworm prevention medication and routine veterinary check-ups, you can help protect your dog from this disease. If your dog does become infected with heartworm, prompt diagnosis and treatment can help increase their chances of full recovery. If you have any concerns about heartworm disease or your dog’s health, talk to your veterinarian today.

***This article is for informational purposes only. It is not meant to provide medical advice or replace the advice of a qualified veterinarian.