Did you think only dogs could get sick from heartworms? You are not alone! Even among vets, the importance of heartworm disease in cats has been poorly appreciated until recently. While cats don’t develop the large infestations of adult worms that dogs do, they are very sensitive to even minor infestations, and there is no effective way to kill the worms once they are present. Understanding the disease and how to prevent it are our best tools to conquering this scary parasite.

Heartworm is spread to cats the same way as to dogs – through mosquito bites. Larvae are introduced into your cat’s blood stream through the bite. While cats usually only have a couple worms living in their blood vessels at a time, these invaders do double duty and can cause severe symptoms, including:

·       Difficulty breathing, coughing, and wheezing

·       Vomiting or weight loss

·       Fluid accumulation in the abdomen

·       Fainting or seizures

·       Sudden collapse or death

If we suspect your cat may have been exposed to heartworms, we will likely recommend blood tests to screen for the parasite. It can be tricky to find them in the cat, so we usually have to submit a special test to the lab, and may even need to take radiographs (X-rays) of his chest to look for changes.

If your cat does not have a heartworm infestation, we can start her on a preventative. These are safe, monthly medications that also prevent several other internal and external parasites. Be sure to use a feline-specific preventative prescribed by your veterinarian, as over the counter parasite medications don’t prevent heartworm, and dog versions aren’t safe for cats.

If your cat does test positive, we need to have a serious discussion about what we can do. There’s no way to kill the worms once they are established, so it’s all about managing the symptoms as best we can. Some cats can live for years with an infestation, but some will deteriorate more quickly. Knowledge is power, and if we know what we are facing, we can come up with a plan to keep your cat feeling his best for as long as possible.

So is your cat at risk in Illinois? Even as far North as Joliet? The answer is yes. Not many vets are testing for heartworm in cats, so while the statistics only show about 1% of cats are infected, we think the percentage may be higher. We’re keeping a close eye on our patients and can talk to you about whether testing your cat is a good idea. We can also assess her risk and help you decide how to best prevent exposure, depending on her lifestyle.

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