It’s the strangest thing: While most dog owners seem to understand that heartworm disease kills dogs, according to the American Heartworm Society (AHS), only 59 percent of owners give their dogs a preventative on a regular basis. And most cat owners actually have no idea that mosquito-borne heartworm disease kills kitties, too. Perhaps it should not be surprising that fewer than four percent of cat owners use a preventative.
Dr. Thomas Nelson, AHS president, puts it simply: “Heartworm disease in cats is difficult to diagnose, even more difficult to treat, and yet it’s so easy to absolutely prevent.”
For some cats, a symptom of heartworm disease may be respiratory problems, shortness of breath and even difficulty breathing, which, according to Nelson, sometimes is misidentified as feline asthma. When such symptoms occur, the source can be heartworm (literally a worm or a few worms about as long as a strand of spaghetti) in the cat’s lungs. This syndrome now has it’s own name and acronym: Heartworm Associated Respiratory Disease, or HARD.
Other symptoms of HARD include weight loss, coughing and lethargy. Sadly, sometimes the sole symptom is sudden death. Cats literally keel over and their owners usually had no idea the pets were even ill. That’s exactly what happened to Harley.
Dr. Ashley Jones (a resident in psychiatry) says she had no idea cats could even get heartworm. In October last year, she returned home from work to find Harley, her 1-1/2-year-old cat, dead. “He didn’t have a single symptom,” she says. An animal autopsy confirmed heartworm disease as the cause of death.
Other cats with HARD also have no symptoms but their immune systems manage to effectively deal with the heartworm. However, there’s no way to predict which cats will be able to beat off heartworm this way. In fact, veterinarians are still trying to figure out how many cats are infected.
Dr. Nelson, of Anniston, AL, says that around a decade ago, he was a non-believer, thinking heartworm in cats wasn’t a “big deal.” Then, his own research found that 26 percent of the cats he looked at were positive for antibodies for heartworm disease. Complicating matters, it turns out that a positive antibody for heartworm disease doesn’t necessarily mean a cat is actively fighting off the disease.
Since mosquitoes spread the disease, heartworm disease in both dogs and cats is more common in places like the Carolinas and other Southern states. However, Nelson adds, “You’d be surprised at how often heartworm occurs in Northern states.” The bottom line: If heartworm disease is prevalent in dogs where you live, considering protection for cats (— or at least discussing the matter with your vet — could save your cat’s life.)
Jones says she now doses her new cat with a heartworm preventative. Where Jones lives, in Columbia, S.C., heartworm is common. However, her cat, Harley, who died of the disease, was an indoor only cat. You might not think an indoor cat would be exposed to mosquitoes. Nelson says in one study 25 percent of the cats with heartworm were described by their owners as “indoor only.”
“How many of us have seen a mosquito indoors?” Nelson asks.
Learn more at www.heartwormsociety.org.