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Heartworm in cats is caused by the same parasitic worm – Dirofilaria immitis– as in dogs, the transmission path between animals is the same, spread by mosquitoes, but the disease has several major differences.
While the dog is the natural host for heartworm the cat is not.
A dog can have many adult heartworms. A cat often no more than eight.
In dogs the disease is caused by the larger size and number of worms, in cats the disease is caused by the smaller worms but a greater inflammatory reaction to them, particularly in the lungs.
The average lifespan of a heartworm in a dog is 5 to 6 years, worms can grow up to foot in length. In cats average lifespan is 2 to 3 years, maximum length around 8 inches.
Because the size of the organs in cats are generally smaller, a fewer number of worms can cause adverse reactions.
Symptoms in cats differ from those in dogs because the heart worms are more likely to infect the lungs.
In cats the first symptoms usually show up as coughing or wheezing. If the disease a left to progress, further symptoms show as weight loss, loss of appetite, vomiting and eventually death.
There are two stages of the disease in cats, first stage would usually occur within 70 to 90 days, when the smaller worms have migrated from the skin to the heart and lungs. At this stage the lungs become inflamed and the result is the classic coughing and wheezing.
Second and much worse stage occurs when the worms die, as the worms break down they poison the blood, this causes a massive immune response, overloading the cats system causing it to go into shock. At this point death is most likely, unfortunately at this point no treatment is available.
So if no treatment is available, then what can we do? Clearly prevention is better than cure.
Dog owners are well aware of the risk of heartworms. Cat owners on the other hand are less aware, unfortunately for cat owners the disease is so hard to detect that it can often go unnoticed till it’s to late.
There is no treatment available for cats at this point, but there are effective prevention medications that – as a bonus also combat fleas. Application is simple, just a case of applying monthly between the shoulder blades. So no fleas and no worms!