At one point, we cat owners living in Oregon could feel pretty darn smug about our risk of heartworms. These little pesky critters just weren't very common in our cold and water-logged state, and at one point, we all thought cats just couldn't get heartworms.
I know I felt that way. But at a pet blogging conference this year, I had a conversation with some really nice people at the American Heartworm Society, and it's changed things for me.
For those of you who don't know, heartworms are parasites that are transmitted by mosquito bites. When infected mosquitoes bite an animal, they leave microscopic larvae behind. And those larvae move to the lungs and the heart. In dogs, these things can spread incredibly quickly. And without treatment, these worms can be fatal to a dog.
In cats, heartworms are a little different. Cats are an imperfect heartworm host, which means that the little bugs don't multiply quite as quickly in a cat's heart. But even one worm could be fatal to a cat. And worms can make cats feel just terrible. Infected cats can vomit, develop strange breathing habits and lose weight. If the worms die, it can trigger sudden cardiac death in a cat.
As the climate changes and the winters in Oregon grow less and less severe, mosquitoes are becoming a bigger and bigger threat. Where we once had few cases of any mosquito-borne illness, since they just didn't live all that long up here and couldn't carry diseases from the tropics up here, that's been changing. Now, we're seeing more mosquito illness in Oregon.
And, animal rescue complicates matters. Infected animals that could die in shelters down south are trucked up here for a shot at new homes (which is wonderful!), but some of those animals have larvae that can infect mosquitoes, which can infect pets here (which is terrible).
So we can no longer feel smug that our Oregon cats are immune from heartworm due to location or species. They're at risk.
Sadly, our treatment choices for cats with heartworm is a little limited. The Society tells me that there are no safe medications that can be used to help a cat that's been infected. Sometimes, surgery is a good option. But those surgeries can be a little risky and a lot expensive.
A better option, they tell me, involves routine preventive medications. This is something I do for the dogs on a regular basis. But I haven't done so for the cats. I need to start doing it now!
Do you provide your cats with heartworm preventive meds? What about your dogs? Drop me a note and tell me your routines.
And if you'd like to know more about heartworm in cats, I encourage you to check out this page from the society. You'll learn a ton!