Warm summer months are the prime time for mosquito populations to thrive. With that comes the threat of mosquito-borne diseases for people and pets, specifically dangerous heartworm infections in dogs and cats.
Inside a large jar at Farr Veterinary Hospital in Lake Charles, a heart that once pumped inside 60 pound Labrador Retriever is on display, showing the graphic reality of invasive heartworms. "The right side of the heart is enlarged because that's where the majority of the heart worms live," said veterinarian Jae Chang.
Regions with large mosquito populations have the highest rates of heartworm infections in the country. "Once the mosquito bites an infected dog or cat, they are considered infected," said Dr. Chang, "then, once they bite a normal, healthy dog or cat - that's how the transmit the heartworm disease."
Heartworms appear like noodle structures, growing to be about 14 inches long and plugging the artery inside the heart. "The heartworms in the heart will cause the heart valves to not function properly and eventually it will turn into heart disease," said Dr. Chang.
That heart disease eventually leads to heart failure if the dog or cat is not treated. The symptoms for dogs and cats are the same. "Coughing, shortness of breath, respiratory distress, exercise intolerance and certainly weight loss," said Dr. Chang.
There is no at-home remedy to kill heartworms and a veterinarian can use a special injection. "Injections called immiticides that we give them in the muscle and that starts to kill the heartworms," said Dr. Chang.
Heartworms can be prevented, even in the midst of mosquitoes, by using monthly tablets or an injection twice a year. One missed dosage, though, could have a deadly result. "The implication of missing one dose could lead to a dog getting heartworms," said Dr. Chang, "because the mosquito burden is such a big issue."
It typically takes six months for the symptoms of an infected dog or cat to be noticeable. The earlier the heartworms can be detected and treated, the higher the likelihood for the animal to be healthy again.