Feline heartworm disease explained


In the past, I found myself a student at Shelby County High School, then a 2004 graduate of Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

Now, I am an associate veterinarian at a small animal practice in Columbiana. Happily, my future holds an opportunity to provide the Reporter’s readers with a look into veterinary medicine and pet care.

For our first topic, I chose heartworm disease. Heartworm disease has for years been considered a condition related to dogs. However, cats also suffer from this condition from time to time.

Heartworm disease is spread from one individual to the next by mosquitoes. In dogs, the condition results in adult worms, sometimes as many as one hundred, living in the heart.
The symptoms you might see are coughing, reduced activity level and a build up of fluid in the abdomen.

For a long time, it was believed that heartworm disease in cats only caused the same kind of symptoms. The difference being that it can take just three adult worms to cause the same level of disease because of the relatively small size of a cat’s heart. Recent information, though, seems to show a different set of symptoms may be more common.

It appears now that, in cats, heartworms cause asthma-like symptoms instead of the traditional heart-related symptoms. In cats, the symptoms seem to be caused by the immature stages of the heartworm’s life cycle. As they develop into adult worms, they get stuck in the small blood vessels of the lungs. Once the cat has several growing heartworms lodged in its lungs, it begins to have an asthmatic-like difficulty catching its breath.

Asthma has been recognized in cats for years. Until recently, it was believed to only have causes similar to those in people, like allergy or exposure to inhaled particles.

Now that we understand more about heartworm disease, it is even more important that we work for its prevention. Thanks to several good monthly preventatives, heartworm disease in dogs is easily stopped. Since we know heartworms are affecting more cats than previously believed, we can do a better job of taking advantage of the products designed to keep this parasite out of cats.

With the coming of spring comes an emergence of mosquitoes. See your local veterinarian to get your pets tested for heartworms and started on the appropriate form of prevention.

Dr. Fred Self is a veterinarian at Shelbiana Animal Clinic in Columbiana, along with Dr. Charles Thornburg. You can reach the clinic at 669-7717.