Heartworm a serious issue for furry hurricane survivors

The American Heartworm Society recently called to my attention a dramatic rise in heartworm cases among pets evacuated from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. According to an AHS news release, perhaps 60 percent of pets from the hurricane-impacted areas are likely heartworm-positive.

The southeastern U.S. and the Mississippi River Valley have long been areas where a high incidence of heartworm infections is found. However, the AHS and some veterinarians are worried that that exodus of evacuees and their pets could lead to a spread of heartworms in low-incidence areas.

Heartworm disease occurs in dogs and cats and is potentially deadly, as it affects the heart and can impact other organs and arteries. The disease is spread by mosquitoes, which pick up microfilariae (heartworms at a pre-larval stage) by sucking the blood of infected pets, and transmit them to other pets when they sting them. Prevention, as well as timely treatment of infected pets, is the best way to keep these parasites from doing serious damage.

Detection of heartworms is initially done through a blood test at the veterinarian’s office. If a pet is infected, the vet may take x-rays or an ultrasound of the pet’s heart and lungs to determine the extent of the infection. Pets with heartworm can be treated; once rid of the parasite, preventive measures (usually a daily or monthly tablet, prescribed by the vet) can be restarted.

The AHS recommends that all owners have their pets tested for heartworm, even if their pets were not adopted or evacuated from the hurricane areas. Find out more details about heartworm disease at their website, www.heartwormsociety.org.

Originally published May 1, 2006.

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