Heartworm Kills Kitties Too


            It’s the strangest thing, while most dog owners seem to understand that heartworm...

            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 per cent of dog owners give their dogs a preventative on a regular basis. Most cat owners actually have no idea that mosquito borne heartworm disease kills kitties too. So, perhaps it’s not surprising that fewer than four per cent of cat owners use with 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 has gone misidentified as feline asthma. Nelson says, it turns out that while these cats exhibit the asthma-like symptoms, the source of the problem was caused by 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 to go with it:  Heartworm Associated Respiratory Disease or HARD.

            Other symptoms of HARD include weight loss, coughing and lethargy. Sadly, sometimes the sole symptom of heartworm in cats is sudden death. These cats literally keel over, while their owners usually had no idea the cats were even ill.

            That’s exactly what happened to Harley. Dr. Ashley Jones (a resident in psychiatry) who says she had no idea cats could even get heartworm. In October of last year, she returned home from work to find Harley, her 1 ½ 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 may also have no symptoms but their immune systems manage to effectively deal with the heartworm. But there’s no way to predict which cats will have immune systems that beat off heartworm. In fact, veterinarians are still attempting to figure out how many cats are infected in the first place.

            Nelson, who is in 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 revealed that 26 per cent 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 the cat is actively fighting off the disease.                        Since it’s mosquitoes that spread the disease – the more mosquitoes, the greater the potential for heartworm in a community. Heartworm disease in both dogs and cats is more common in places like the Carolina’s and in Southern states. However, Nelson adds, “You’d be surprised at how often heartworm occurs in Northern states.” The bottom line is that if heartworm disease is prevalent in dogs where you live, considering protection for cats – or at least having that discussion with your veterinarian - could save your cat’s life.

            Jones says she now doses her new cat with a heartworm preventative. Living in Columbia, SC, heartworm is common. But her cat Harley, who died of the disease, was an indoor only cat. You might not think an indoor cat wouldn’t be exposed to mosquitoes. Nelson says in one study 25 per cent 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.