Most people know that dogs can get heartworm disease and should be on monthly prevention to avoid getting this deadly disease from a mosquito bite. But did you know cats can develop heartworm disease as well? However, in cats there are some major differences.
The blood parasite Dirofilaria immitis, commonly known as heartworm, is carried in the larval stage from a mosquito that has bitten an infected dog. The parasite's normal host is the dog. If a cat is bitten by a mosquito carrying heartworm, fewer worms actually develop which makes testing in cats more difficult. These immature worms still cause problems for the heart and lungs.
Unlike in dogs, there is no treatment for heartworm disease in cats. Often cats will not seem sick until the worms start to die and travel to the lungs. This can cause coughing, difficulty breathing and even sudden death, a syndrome known as "HARD", heartworm-associated respiratory disease.
Studies estimate that the prevalence of heartworm disease in cats may be 1/5 of that in dogs in the same area. Here is Wisconsin, feline heartworm disease is rare. But after a mild winter, expect cases to rise. The temperature needs to be above 54F for mosquitoes to spawn. A study in Florida of 630 cats found adult heartworms in 5% of the cats, equivalent to Feline Leukemia, a disease commonly vaccinated against. Exposure was even greater at 15%.
Since both diagnosing and treating feline heartworm disease is very difficult, prevention is key. Even indoor cats are at risk of contracting heartworm from a mosquito, especially in warmer climates. There are both chewable and topical medications that can be given monthly to prevent heartworm disease in cats. Talk to your local veterinarian to see which choice is right for you and your feline friend.
For more information explore the KNOW heartworms website specifically dedicated to feline heartworm education and prevention.