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Cat Heartworms

Posted by Dr. Roth on March 18, 2022

Medical Advice
Wellness Care
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Keeping pets safe is every pet parent’s top priority. One way they achieve this goal is with monthly preventatives like oral and topical flea and tick preventatives to help keep parasites at bay, reducing a pet’s risk of potentially harmful diseases. 

Many pet parents also use heartworm prevention, and the majority who do this also have dogs. And while dogs may be more at risk of heartworms, cats can get them too. 

Here’s what pet parents need to know about cat heartworms.

What Are Heartworms?

Heartworms (Dirofilaria immitis) are blood-borne parasites. While they generally reside in a pet’s heart, they can also occupy nearby large blood vessels. They cause blood vessel inflammation and other harmful issues like blood clots, liver failure, and kidney failure. 

How Do Pets Get Heartworms?

Mosquitoes play an integral role in the spread of heartworms. When the insects feed on an infected animal, they pick up immature larvae (microfilariae). The larvae develop into an “ineffective” stage within 10 to 14 days. 

The mosquito bites another animal, and the larvae get injected into that animal's bloodstream. The larvae travel to the heart and mature into adult heartworms. Within a few months, the adults begin producing more microfilariae, which travel through the bloodstream. 

Do Cats Get Heartworms?

Generally, most pet parents believe heartworms are a concern for dogs. However, cat parents need to know about them too. 

Cats are resistant or atypical hosts. The larvae injected by an infected mosquito don’t always survive to adulthood inside of a cat’s body. While that means a cat’s risk is lower, it’s not impossible. Cats, like dogs and several other animals, can carry heartworms. Those that do have adult heartworms tend to have fewer than infected canines, making it more challenging to diagnose the issue. That doesn’t necessarily mean a cat’s situation is less dangerous. In fact, cats are often in more danger than dogs with heartworms. 

Symptoms of Cat Heartworms

A cat with heartworm disease often presents subtle symptoms, which can include:

  • Coughing

  • Asthma-like attacks

  • Periodic vomiting

  • Lack of appetite

  • Weight loss

In more severe cases, infected cats may faint or suffer seizures, and some may develop fluid in their abdomens. In some cases, the first symptom a cat shows of having heartworms is sudden collapse or even death. 

Can Pet Parents Treat Cat Heartworms?

If a dog develops heartworms, pet parents can seek treatment. That involves injecting medication to kill the heartworms and rest to avoid complications. Unfortunately, there are no treatments for cat heartworms. Prevention is a cat parent’s only option. Pet parents will only be able to treat the symptoms of heartworms in cats. 

The American Heartworm Society recommends getting cats tested annually for heartworms. It also recommends providing year-round monthly heartworm prevention. 

Heartworm testing is a simple procedure that requires a small blood sample (three to four drops is generally enough). Many vets can run the test in an in-house lab. Some tests even offer same-day results. If the results are negative, the vet can provide essential cat advice for the best heartworm prevention.

Many factors affect a cat’s relative risk. While outdoor cats have a greater risk, indoor cats can get them, too. Where a pet parent lives can also play a role. Areas with more mosquitoes naturally present a more significant risk for cats. Those who live in northern areas shouldn’t assume there’s no risk during the colder months, either. Even in winter, mosquitoes (including those infected with heartworm larvae) can still bite. That’s why year-round prevention is so important. 

If a pet parent isn’t sure if they live in a higher-risk area, they can check the map provided by the American Heartworm Society. Then they should seek cat health advice from their primary vet regarding heartworm testing and preventative measures. The more proactive a pet parent is, the better the chances of keeping their cats safe from a potentially devastating disease. 

Protect Cats from Heartworms Year-Round

A cat’s risk of developing heartworms is low, but it’s not zero. Not only can cats get heartworms, but the effects can be much more devastating. There are no treatments for cat heartworms. A pet parent’s best bet is to be proactive and provide their cats with heartworm prevention. Year-round protection is essential for outdoor and indoor cats alike. It’s a small addition to a pet parent’s cat and kitten care routine that can ensure all cats live long and healthy lives. 

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