Heartworm disease in dogs is a silent killer that is often overlooked until it’s too late. This preventable condition starts with a mosquito bite and ends with either a long, expensive treatment or death.
Symptoms may not appear until the worm reaches maturity (usually after around 6 months).
Signs of Heartworms in a Dog
1. A soft, dry cough
The parasites make their way to the lungs and start multiplying in the lungs and surrounding veins. Coughing may be most noticeable after exercise and may end with fainting. Even light exercise can cause fainting.
2. Inactivity or lethargy
Your pet suddenly seems tired more often, doesn’t want to go outside, or avoids all physical activity. Dogs with heartworm infection are weakened and find it difficult to be active even when performing small tasks.
3. Weight loss or anorexia
Even minor physical activities, such as eating, can become difficult and exhausting chores.
4. Rapid or difficult breathing
Along with coughing, breathing problems occur when the worms inhabit the lungs and surrounding veins. Fluid can also build around the blood vessels in the lungs, making it difficult for the lungs to oxygenate the blood.
5. Bulging chest
The ribs may seem to protrude, and the chest has a bulging appearance as a result of adult heartworm infection. This symptom can result from weight loss and anorexia caused by heartworms. This can also be caused by fluid buildup in response to the parasite’s presence.
6. Allergic reaction
Although allergic reaction is more common in cats, it is possible for dogs to show symptoms similar to an allergic reaction or asthmatic symptoms in response to the heartworms or their offspring.
Large numbers of heartworms invade the heart and cause blockage of blood flow (known as caval or vena cava syndrome). Collapse is usually accompanied by shock and red blood cell destruction. Death can follow within days.
Other symptoms are possible, too:
- Secondary pneumonia
- Increased blood pressure
- Excessive sleeping
Seizures, lameness and blindness occur when the parasites get lost and end up in places other than the heart or lungs. They can end up in the brain or eyes, although this is rare.
Some of the symptoms above can also be signs of other conditions, which makes it more difficult to detect heartworm infection. There are other tools used by vets to detect the condition more accurately.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Blood tests to detect the various stages of infection can include viewing a blood sample under a microscope and checking for antigens of adult heartworms (a protein the heartworms produce and also the most commonly used test, according to VCA Animal Hospitals).
Other blood tests can check for abnormalities in complete blood counts and evaluate the level of function of the internal organs.
- Radiographs (X-rays) may detect inflammation, enlargement, or swelling of the heart, lungs and the large artery leading to the lungs from the heart (pulmonary artery).
- Abnormal heart rhythms and enlarged heart chambers can be detected by an electrocardiogram.
- An ultrasound of the heart (echocardiography) can help determine the health of the heart for treatment and offer a visual of any existing heartworms.
These tests are also used to determine the health status of the internal organs. This is required to evaluate whether the dog is healthy enough for treatment.
In the video below, Dr. Courtney Campbell, DVM, explains even more about heartworm:
Treatment begins by eliminating the adult roundworms and takes about 1 month to complete. The dead adult worms are then absorbed by the body.
After this stage, the next treatment gets rid of the younger parasites and offspring. In extreme cases, surgical removal of heartworms from the internal organs may be necessary.
This condition is preventable. If your pet is not taking a heartworm preventive, please talk with your vet about getting started.
- American Heartworm Society: Current Guidelines
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: The Facts About Heartworm Disease
This pet health content was reviewed by a veterinarian.