A local veterinarian is urging pet owners to know the signs of a serious animal disease that can result in organ damage, heart failure, and even death.

April is Heartworm Awareness Month and the American Heartworm Society's recent incidence map finds Central and Upstate New York struggle with higher rates of infection than the majority of the nation.

Heartworm disease is a serious and potentially fatal illness that infects pets like dogs, cats, and ferrets. The AHS says heartworms grow to be about a foot in length once they fully establish themselves in an infected animal.

These worms live in blood vessels, lungs, and the heart; which can lead to "severe lung disease, heart failure and damage to other organs in the body." On a scary note, most infected dogs don't show warning signs of a heartworm infection until it's caused significant damage to their body.

Check out this 40-second video that explains what heartworms are and why they should be taken seriously:

Clinton Pet Vet recently sent a strongly-worded email blast warning Central New Yorkers to protect their pets now before it's too late.

How Heartworm Spreads in New York

Tim Boyle, Getty Images
Tim Boyle, Getty Images

Heartworm is transmitted by mosquitoes. When these insects bite an infected animal, they drink up the microscopic baby worms called microfilaria that are in the mammal's bloodstream.

The mosquito then becomes a carrier for these microscopic worms and can transmit them when biting into a healthy animal, like a domesticated pet or wild creature like a lynx or fox.

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Once inside the mosquito, these baby worms will then mature into "infective stage" larvae over the next 10 to 14 days. These larvae will then enter the next healthy animal the infected mosquito bites.

It takes the larvae roughly 6 months to mature and reproduce inside a new host. They can live up to 3 years in infected cats and up to 7 years in dogs.

What's concerning health officials is that the number of mosquitos and other pests are increasing, thus raising the possibility of even more heartworm infections down the road.

Signs of an Active Heartworm Infection

NNehring from Getty Images Signature
NNehring from Getty Images Signature

Depending on the infected animal species, symptoms are often different.

Once a dog has an established heartworm infection, they can develop a mild to persistent cough, fatigue after moderate activity, loss of appetite, weight loss, and aversion to exercise.

Ferrets develop similar symptoms, but they develop more quickly due to them being much smaller than the average canine. Ferrets can enter serious respiratory distress with just one worm in their system. Signs of that include pale gums, open mouthed rapid breathing, coughing, and lethargy.

Infected cats tend to have more subtle signs, but they can also be dramatic depending on the infection. Lesser signs include a mild cough, intermittent vomiting, weight loss, and lack of appetite. More serious symptoms include fainting, seizures, fluid accumulating in the abdomen, and difficulty walking.

Unfortunately, as the AHS warns, "The first sign in some cases is sudden collapse of the cat, or sudden death."

In all cases, if the disease is allowed unchecked for too long, the damage becomes too extreme to come back from, and the animal will die.

The Cost of Treating Heartworm in New York

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Clinton Pet Vet warned that giving your pet prescribed heartworm preventatives in the most effective measure in protecting their health - and your wallet. According to the facility, treating heartworm can cost over six times more than a year's supply of preventatives.

My dog is a rough collie, which means he has a sensitivity to most heartworm preventatives like ivermectin, so my choices are limited. His monthly Interceptor pill comes in a pack of 6, for a cost of $75. So, each year I am spending $150 to keep him free and clear of this terrible parasite.

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So if I were to lapse on his medication and he contracts heartworm, it could cost me roughly $1,000 to treat him. Not only that, he will have to be placed on strict lifestyle and exercise restrictions until the infection was managed.

So while I may grumble at how much this one medication costs, it's saving me money in the long run because heartworm has been detected in the area at an increasing rate.

Preventing Heartworm in New York

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Clinton Pet Vet shared an article from their affiliate Great Pet Care about the rising dangers of heartworm in America. If the illness is detected past a certain point, the pet may need to be euthanized due to how advanced the infection became.

"Preventing heartworms in dogs with oral or topical medications such as Interceptor PlusTrifexis, or Advantage Multi for Dogs is much easier and more affordable than treating the disease," the website advised.

Treatment must be year-round, which is the only way to ensure continuous protection.

Aside from administering monthly preventatives to pets, it's important to schedule regular checkups and heartworm testing with your vet. Clinton Pet Vet also encourages using animal-safe mosquito repellant to decrease the number of bites.

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A final step can be treating the home and surrounding environment by eliminating mosquitoes from the area. While some people may prefer spraying, there are other methods one can undertake to cut down on the insect's numbers.

Removing all standing water on your property is the best way to ensure their numbers decline as that is where mosquitoes lay their eggs.

Another option is using outdoor bug traps, like this device from Dynatrap that culls the number of mosquitoes and other pesky bugs within a certain radius.

With even more mosquitoes expected to bother us this summer, now is the time to ensure your pets are safe.

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