12 symptoms that could indicate heartworm in dogs

 

The weather’s starting to get warmer, you’re able to spend more time outside with your dog and all is good with the world.  You’re in the backyard ready to enjoy an evening kicking back and then you hear that all-too-familiar high-pitched buzzing sound. Yes, they’re back – mosquitoes!  For some people, mosquitoes are merely an irritation with bites leaving itchy welts on the skin, but many others fear the health issues that these tiny insects can bring in the form of malaria or the zika virus. Although many of us think about the effects of mosquitoes on humans, we sometimes overlook the harm they can do to pets in the form of heartworm.

 

A close-up of a mosquito on a white background
Mosquito

 

Heartworm causes serious disease in dogs affecting the heart, the lungs, and the blood vessels of the dog and ultimately it results in death. Heartworm is a parasitic roundworm that is spread to a dog if he is bitten by a mosquito.  It is the only way that dogs can get heartworm – it cannot be caught from another infected dog.  When a dog is bitten by an infected mosquito, the larvae migrate from the bite site to the heart, lungs, and blood vessels and this takes approximately 6-7 months. During this 6-7 months, the larvae develop into adult heartworms.  These adults then make their homes in these organs and blood vessels and start to reproduce. Adult heartworms can grow up to 12 inches long and can live for 7 years.  A dog can have as many as 250 worms in his system. If a dog has been bitten by an infected mosquito, it is likely that there will no symptoms for 7 months.

 

 

Heartworm lifecycle
Heartworm cycle. Image courtesy of Tampa Bay Animal Hospitals

 

 

Symptoms that your dog may have heartworm include the following:

Soft dry cough

This is from the heartworm multiplying in the lungs. The dog may cough more after exercise and may even faint.  Exercise does not need to be strenuous for this to occur.

Your dog becomes very lethargic

If your once active dog is suddenly not wanting to be active and preferring to sleep or rest rather going for a walk.  This may be a sign of heartworms.

Weight loss

Because your dog is so lethargic, even activities like eating can be too much effort.  As a result, the dog may choose to rest in preference to eating.  If a dog doesn’t eat normally, weight loss will likely result.

Rapid breathing

If your dog is experiencing difficulties in breathing, it may be due to heartworm.  If the lungs have heartworms living there, it can make breathing difficult and fluid can build up in the lungs and surrounding blood vessels.

Protruding ribs and bulging chest

The dog may look this way because of weight loss and because of fluid on the lungs.

Allergic reaction

Your dog may appear to be asthmatic or even allergic.  This is because of the build up of fluid and heartworm inhabiting the lungs.

Collapse

When there are large numbers of heartworm it can cause a blockage in the heart resulting in the collapse and ultimately the death of the dog.

Excessive sleeping

Nosebleeds

Seizures

Blindness

Lameness

The last four symptoms occur when heartworms end up in other parts of the body other than the heart, lungs, and blood vessels.

dog examination by veterinary doctor with stethoscope in clinic

Diagnosis

As with many illnesses, the above symptoms can indicate other health issues, so vets have other ways of detecting heartworms.  Blood tests are a good way to determine whether there are heartworms by checking the presence of certain proteins (antigens) in the blood produced by heartworms.  The earliest this can be detected is at around 5 months after the dog has been bitten by the mosquito. X-rays, ECG, and echocardiography can also help to determine what is going on in the heart and lungs of the dog.

Treatment

Treatment is achieved by initially stabilizing the dog’s condition prior to the actual treatment beginning.  The veterinarian may start by giving the dog antibiotics (to eliminate the bacteria that the heartworm give out when they die), preventative treatments (to stop heartworm reaching adulthood by eliminating the larvae), and steroids (to stop inflammation).  The actual treatment can then begin and may be in the form of a series of injections to eliminate adult heartworm from the dog.  Your dog will need to be hospitalized for this process. Pre-treatment stabilization and treatment can take several months to achieve. Following this, the younger heartworm and larvae are eliminated.  In certain situations, surgical removal may be required.

Recovery

Following treatment, the dog will need to rest far more than usual.  Physical exercise increases the rate at which the heartworm will cause damage to a dog’s heart or lungs. A very active dog with only a few heartworms can be more at risk than a very inactive dog with lots of heartworms. Your veterinarian will advise when exercise can be resumed and this will need to be introduced slowly and gradually.   Six months after the treatment you will need to have your dog tested for heartworms again.  This is because the veterinarian needs to check that all heartworms were eliminated during the treatment process. The longer the time that heartworms are present, the more damage they can do.

Curious Puppy

The best approach to managing heartworms is to prevent them in the first place.  There are many products on the market that are designed to prevent a whole variety of problems ranging from heartworm to fleas in one single application.  These can be provided in the form of a pill or spot treatments applied to the skin.  These monthly treatments do not prevent heartworms but eliminate any larvae that have been acquired by the dog during that month.

It is always advisable to discuss heartworm concerns with your veterinarian. He or she can advise you on the best preventative measures to protect your dog from this parasite.

 

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Key signs to be aware of to avoid being bitten by a dog

Inspector Clouseau: Does your dog bite?

Hotel clerk: No

Inspector Clouseau: [bending down to pet dog] Nice doggie

[Dog bites Clouseau on the hand]

Inspector Clouseau: I thought you said your dog did not bite!

Hotel clerk: That is not my dog

 

Inspector Clouseau dog bite sketch
The dog bite sketch from The Pink Panther Strikes Again

The above quote and image are taken from “The Pink Panther Strikes Again” (1976) and it is one of the funniest skits that Peter Sellars played in his role of Inspector Clouseau.  In real life, dog bites are no laughing matter.  According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), there are approximately 4.5 million dog bites occurring in the United States every year.  Regrettably, in 2016 there were 41 dog bite-related fatalities in the US. Even dog lovers who have grown up with dogs and are used to being around dogs are not immune to being bitten.  So what can you do to protect yourself?

Signs that a dog is about to bite

Just as with people, you can tell a lot about a dog’s mood by the body language he is using.  Dogs can bite in 1/40th of a second, so knowing what to be aware of in the lead up to that can be helpful. There are 9 key signs to look for that can indicate when a dog may be about to bite.  Some of them are subtle and may easily be confused with other moods.

Low growling

A dog may growl for a whole range of reasons, and not all of these are a sign of bad things to come.  If you start to hear a quiet, low growling sound, this can indicate that it is time to be concerned that the dog is going to be aggressive. If he is also snapping at the same time you need to take action.

Showing front teeth

When a dog bares his teeth, this may be for a variety of reasons.  Sometimes it is because he is being submissive, but other times it is because he is being aggressive.  An aggressive “smile” is often accompanied by other behaviors as given below, so look out for a combination of all of these things.

dog showing teeth

Rigid body

If the dog’s body suddenly stiffens and the tail raises slightly, you are being given a warning sign.

Direct eye contact and whales eyes

Whale eyes

The above image shows a dog whaling his eyes.  If a dog is showing more of the whites of his eyes than usual by turning his head away but is still staring at the thing that he feels is threatening him, it is a clear signal that the dog is uncomfortable.

Shaking and drooling

A dog may start shaking from the adrenaline rush from the stressful situation.  The stress can also cause a dog to drool more than usual.

Wagging tail

Commonly thought of as a sign of happiness, this is not always the case. If the dog’s tail is raised higher than the normal wagging position and his body is perfectly still, you know there is a potential for a problem.

Canine body language

Licks lips, turns away, and averts gaze

Dogs will tend to lick their lips when they are nervous. A combination of all three of the above movements can indicate trouble ahead.

Raised fur

The hairs on the back of the dog suddenly become raised erect and the dog may even smell differently as odors from glands are released.

Dog with hackles raised and other signs

Whiskers twitch

Due to tension in the body and the face, a dog’s whiskers will begin to twitch.

If you observe any of the above 9 behaviors in a dog, remain motionless, do not run or scream, and avoid direct eye contact with the dog. Especially if you are encountering a large dog, it is easy to get knocked over by the dog. If you are knocked over, it is best to roll yourself into a ball covering your ears and neck with your hands and arms.  Continue to avoid making eye contact with the dog.

 

How to prevent yourself from being bitten by a dog

Once you recognize the signs that a dog is about to bite, what can you do to prevent provoking this behavior in the first place?  One initial suggestion is not to approach a dog that is unfamiliar to you. Secondly, you should not run away from a dog, or appear to be panicked.  If you are approached by an unfamiliar dog, do not move, run, or scream, and make sure you don’t make direct eye contact.  Thirdly, you should never disturb a dog if she is eating, sleeping, or when caring for puppies.  Fourthly, don’t pet a dog before she has had a chance to sniff and smell you.  Following this, you should never pat her on the head, instead just scratch her under the chin. Finally, it is never advisable to engage in rough, aggressive play with a dog.

Steps to take to prevent your dog biting others

We’ve considered what to do about being bitten by someone else’s dog, but how can you stop your own dog from being a threat to you and your family or to others.  Before choosing a dog for your family pet, try to do as much research as possible and ask a professional such as a vet or a dog trainer, so that you can find the breed that best meets your family’s needs.  In addition to looking at dog temperament and exercise requirements, you should also consider that certain breeds have much stronger bites than others.  Bite strength is measured in pound-force per square inch (PSI).  Examples of breeds with the strongest bite are the Kangal and the Doberman.

 

Kangal
Kangal

 

If you are considering adopting a rescue dog, you may not know much about the dog’s history or whether it has aggressive tendencies.  In this case, it is better to spend plenty of time with the dog before adopting him, to make sure the dog is a good fit for your home.  This is especially important if you have young children at home or if you have relatives or friends with young children regularly coming to your home.

When you decide on a dog, make sure you exercise your dog regularly to build bonds, reduce excess energy, and to keep your dog mentally stimulated.  Ensure that your puppy has proper socialization with exposure to as many different people and different situations as possible.  Train your dog so that he understands and responds to basic training commands.

It’s important to educate children on how to behave with dogs appropriately so that they are not bringing out aggression in the dog. Don’t play wrestling games or tug of war games with your dog and don’t allow children to play roughly with him either.

Finally, spaying or neutering dogs helps to reduce aggression and is highly recommended if you are not a dog breeder.

 

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