Sep 13 2016

The Heart of the Matter: Heartworm Disease in Cats and Ferrets

Mosquito on Cats nose

Mosquitoes have a pretty bad reputation. They are responsible for the spread of Malaria, West Nile Virus, and the Zika Virus, which has gained a lot of popularity recently. They have earned their place as the most awful insect of all time. As if that weren’t bad enough, mosquitoes also spread heartworm disease. It’s not unusual to hear about this disease in relation to our canine friends, but did you know that heartworm also affect cats, and even ferrets? And to add insult to injury, there is no effective cure for heartworm in cats and ferrets.

The Nitty-Gritty

The life cycle of a heartworm includes the following:

  • A mosquito bites an infected animal (a cat, dog, ferret, coyote, wolf, fox, or raccoon) and feeds on blood containing microfilariae (baby worms) produced by adult female heartworms living in the animal’s body
  • The microfilariae go from the mosquito’s gut to the body where they develop into larvae over 2-3 weeks
  • The larvae move to the mosquito’s mouth where they will be deposited during the next blood meal

Heartworm in our pets starts when the mosquito bites and feeds. The larvae develop into mature heartworms in about 6 months, living in the heart, lungs, and blood vessels. Even just a couple of mature heartworm can contribute to an immune system response commonly referred to as Heartworm Associated Respiratory Disease (HARD). The symptoms of HARD can be subtle at first, and may be commonly mistaken for asthma or allergic bronchitis. Emergency care may be necessary as symptoms develop. Please call us if you notice:

  • Coughing
  • Respiratory distress
  • Lethargy
  • Rapid or shallow breathing
  • Accelerated heart rate
  • Wheezing
  • Panting
  • Vomiting and/or diarrhea
  • Blindness
  • Convulsions
  • Inappetance
  • Weight loss

A Little About Heartworm in Ferrets

Ferrets are not immune to the effects of heartworms. The signs are similar to those seen in dogs, but because their hearts are much smaller, they develop at a faster rate. A single worm can cause serious respiratory distress symptoms, including coughing, fatigue, open-mouth breathing, and pale blue or muddy gum color. Just like for the cat and dog, The American Heartworm Society recommends year round prevention approved for ferrets, as well as routine checkups to keep them happy and heartworm-free.

Prevention is Key

Diagnosing heartworm in cats can be difficult because infected cats may only have a few worms in their heart or lungs. There is a screening test available, but further diagnostics may be necessary to rule out heartworm disease. There is no treatment for heartworm in cats; that is why the American Heartworm Society recommends year round prevention. We also recommend proactive mosquito abatement.  Mosquitoes are stealthy hunters; even an indoor cat or ferret is at risk of contracting heartworm disease from a hungry mosquito that has slipped inside your home. Additionally, try these tactics around your property:

  • Empty any containers of stagnant water, as mosquitoes lay eggs there
  • Dump and replace water in birdbaths at least once a week
  • Clear rain gutters of any debris that could hold water
  • Watch for standing water from rain showers or landscaping sprinklers
  • Maintain proper levels of chlorine in pools and hottubs and keep them covered when not in use

Paws, Purrs & Exotics Animal Hospital aims to help your pet live the long life he or she deserves. Please contact us with any questions or concerns. Together, we can tackle heartworm in cats and ferrets.

pawspurrsandexoticsah | Pet Safety

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