Everything you need to know about deadly heartworm risk

LEADING canine health experts have joined forces to ensure that the millions of dogs in Australia are not left unprotected from the potentially deadly heartworm disease.

Following concerns that some vets and dog owners are not discussing preventative care options, an expert panel has developed Australia's first heartworm prevention guidelines to remind people of the real risk of the disease.

Dr Robert Labuc, a veterinary specialist in canine medicine and one of the experts behind the Australian Heartworm Prevention Guidelines, is reminding pet owners that it only takes one bite from an infected mosquito to transmit the disease and that appropriate steps should be taken to protect their pets.

"Prevention is always better than cure, and with 130 positive cases of heartworm infection reported throughout Australia since 2012, owners should be conscious about the risk of the disease, especially if their dog has not been protected," said Dr Labuc. 

Heartworm is potentially fatal for dogs and is caused by parasitic worms living in major blood vessels of the heart and lungs.

It only takes one bite from an infected mosquito to cause heartworm in a dog.
It only takes one bite from an infected mosquito to cause heartworm in a dog. Trish Bowman

It is passed from animal to animal by the bite of an infected mosquito where tiny larvae are injected into the skin and can eventually grow into adult worms in the heart and lungs of the dog.

Recent cases of heartworm infection and the formulation of new industry guidelines serve as a wake up call to dog owners that there is always a risk of heartworm and that both vets and pet owners should be aware that complacency can be deadly.

"Recent reports of positive infections serve as a reminder not to leave your four-legged family members unprotected from what can be a deadly disease," Dr Labuc said.

"Heartworm can be a silent killer and is easily preventable if you make sure your dog is protected all year round. This can be as easy as an annual trip to your local vet for yearlong protection that can guarantee your dog's happiness and health and that's important to the whole family."

The new guidelines outline three key factors that enable heartworm to persist - infected hosts, mosquito populations and environmental conditions.

They also aim to highlight why vets should always be diligent when it comes to heartworm conversations with their clients.

While each case of heartworm should be assessed individually, current evidence shows that year-round heartworm protection is recommended for all domestic canines across Australia.

"A yearly preventative administered by your veterinarian can help to overcome issues of compliance and thereby avoid the possibility of your pet developing infection in case of missed or delayed doses," said Labuc said.

The guidelines have been independently developed by the Australian Heartworm Advisory Panel (AHAP) to assist vets in having the discussion with pet owners about heartworm risk, consequence and protection.

Dog owners are encouraged to visit their local vet to identify the most appropriate treatment for their animal. If a dog is already infected, it can be difficult to treat and can be deadly.

Signs of late-stage heartworm disease can include:

  • Lethargy or persistent general tiredness
  • Tiring easily with exercise
  • Coughing
  • Loss of appetite
  • Enlarged or swollen abdomen

For more information about heartworm, please visit your local vet or head to

Prevention is better than cure when it comes to heartworm.
Prevention is better than cure when it comes to heartworm. Claudia Baxter

Heartworm facts:

What is Heartworm Disease?
Heartworm is a serious and potentially deadly disease caused by parasites that are found in the arteries of the lungs or heart of cats and dogs.

Dogs are considered the most common host for heartworms and heartworm-infected dogs continue to be found throughout mainland Australia.

The parasites are spread from one dog to another through the bite of an infected mosquito. 

When an infected mosquito bites an animal, tiny heartworm larvae are injected into the skin and develop in the tissues.

Eventually, they move towards the heart and large blood vessels surrounding the heart where they grow into adult worms, sometimes between 12 to 30 centimetres in length4. It takes about six to seven months for the larvae to mature into adult heartworms.

In the heart, the worms reproduce and release larval offspring into the dog's blood stream, which can then be taken and transmitted to another animal through the bite of a mosquito.

Adult worms can live from five to seven years in the animal, and a dog can be infected by as many as 250 worms at a time.

Symptoms of Heartworm Disease

Heartworm symptoms depend on a number of factors including, the amount of adult worms infecting the animal, their location, the duration of infection, and the degree of damage that the infection has caused.

The most common signs include:

  • Lethargy
  • Tiring easily with exercise
  • Coughing
  • Loss of appetite
  • Enlarged abdomen
Fainting is one sign your dog may be infected with heartworm.
Fainting is one sign your dog may be infected with heartworm. Thinkstock

Consequences of Heartworm

The presence of worms can be serious, causing damage to important organs in the body that affects their functioning and thus, the health of the animal. Due to the size of the worms, it is possible that they can create a barrier to the passage of blood from the heart to the lungs.

The blood supply to other organs of the body can also be reduced.

The result is infected, congested, irritated and inflamed heart and lungs.

Interruptions to the blood flow out of the heart can cause significant strain on the muscle and make the animal lethargic.

Symptoms are most noticeable after exercise, with some dogs even fainting.

In addition to the physical burden of heartworm in dogs, the treatment options available to dog owners can be expensive, difficult and have a long duration, in terms of administering the treatment and rest time.

Treatment can also be potentially life-threatening to dogs.

Heartworm Prevention

Heartworm disease is easily prevented through medication. It is recommended that puppies are protected from heartworm as early as possible2 from birth and continue for the rest of the dog's life to ensure protection from the disease.

Heartworm prevention can come in many forms including tablets, 'spot on' treatments or injections, that can be administered daily, monthly, or annually.

Year-round heartworm prevention is recommended for animals so that they are protected all year long.

Australian pet owners are encouraged to speak to their vet if compliance to daily or monthly products is a possible concern and discuss the most suitable treatment for their dog or cat.

Topics:  heartworm pets

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