During your pet’s annual wellness visit, we know we discuss many important topics that are essential for keeping your furry pal happy and healthy for years to come. Although we are familiar with these subjects, we understand that most pet owners can be overwhelmed with vaccinations, screening tests, parasite prevention, and other preventive care topics—after all, it’s a lot to take in. When you bring in your pet for their wellness visit, they likely also have some questions, despite not being able to human-speak. As animal lovers and veterinary professionals, we want to ensure we answer their questions, too. Let’s listen to a conversation between Dr. Kurowski and one of our patients. 

Mabel the puppy and her worries about heartworm disease

As spring was bringing new life to San Diego, Mabel the Great Pyrenees puppy, who weighed in at a whopping 25 pounds at only 8 weeks of age, visited Scripps Ranch Veterinary Hospital. Born near an open field, Mabel had had a wonderful time playing outdoors with her siblings and other neighborhood dogs. But, after being welcomed by a new family, Mabel was brought to our hospital for her first puppy wellness visit. Dr. Kurowksi and her team checked Mabel’s fecal sample and discovered she had some tagalongs—she had a roundworm infection, which had been causing loose stool. Also, a couple of ticks were burrowed deep in her thick fur, looking for their next meal.

Horrified at the thought of these pests, Mabel’s family asked how they could get rid of them, and prevent them in the future. Mabel had some questions, too. Let’s listen to the conversation.

Dr. Kurowski: I’m glad you asked about how you can protect Mabel from parasites. Although fleas, ticks, roundworms, and other intestinal parasites can cause many diseases in your pup, heartworms can be the most deadly. Since Mabel is only 8 weeks old, it’s the perfect time to begin a comprehensive parasite prevention plan.

Mabel: Will this be another shot? I feel like I’ve had enough injections today.

Dr. Kurowski: No worries, Mabel! Unlike your vaccinations, parasite prevention comes as tasty chewables, or a topical liquid that your family would apply to your back. The key is remembering to take the preventive every month so you’re never unprotected. Do you think you can help remind your family it’s time for your parasite prevention?

Mabel: I’ll do my best! What happens if we forget, and I miss a dose?

Dr. Kurowski: Heartworms have a long life cycle, so if you miss a dose, we would wait at least six months before testing you for heartworm disease. An infected mosquito that bites you will transmit heartworm larvae called microfilaria into your bloodstream. Then, these microfilaria take six to seven months to mature into adult heartworms and begin reproducing. So, our heartworm test won’t be able to detect an infection until the microfilaria have reached adulthood, since the test picks up only adult female worms. 

Mabel: Will I start showing heartworm disease signs before I can be tested?

Dr. Kurowski: Most likely, no. Heartworm disease signs can take months, and sometimes years, to develop in dogs, with a mild cough typically the first sign. You may also become more tired than usual after exercising, develop a more frequent cough, and have a swollen abdomen filled with fluid in the later disease stages. Because signs can take so long to appear, I recommend that you be tested for heartworm disease every year, especially since this disease can be challenging to treat.

Mabel: You mean if I get heartworm disease, I wouldn’t get a tasty deworming medication like I did for my roundworm infection? That wasn’t so bad!

Dr. Kurowski: Unfortunately not. Although heartworms are a type of “worm,” they are not an intestinal parasite like roundworms. Instead, we would inject an arsenic compound deep into your lumbar muscles to kill off these tough parasites. These injections can be painful, and make you feel ill for a few days. You also can’t run and play during the entire treatment, which can take several months. As the worms die and break up, too much activity can cause them to form life-threatening clots in your bloodstream.

Mabel: Wow, the treatment sounds almost as bad as the disease! I’ll ensure I remind my family to give me my preventive on time every month, the same way I remind them about dinnertime. 

Dr. Kurowski: I’ll keep a close eye on your weight as you grow, Mabel, to ensure you receive the correct heartworm preventive dose. You’ll be growing so fast, and I want you protected!

Mabel: I have a feline brother at home. Can he get heartworms, too?

Dr. Kurowski: Yes, he can, despite never going outside. Mosquitoes can fly in open doors and infect your kitty housemate. And, if your cat develops heartworm disease, no treatment is available. He may have problems, such as coughing, wheezing, difficulty walking, and seizures, but we can only manage his disease. In some cases, cats can die from a single adult heartworm, which makes year-round prevention critical for pets.

Mabel: Oh no, that’s horrible! I’ll ensure we both get our heartworm preventive on time every month to stay safe. Thanks for all the info, Dr. Kurowski!

Dr. Kurowski: I’m glad I could help, Mabel. I’ll see you soon at your next puppy visit.

Although we know Mabel can’t really talk, she asked some great questions about heartworm disease. If you have further questions, or need to schedule a wellness exam and heartworm test for your pet to check their heartworm status, call our Scripps Ranch Veterinary Hospital team.