Heartworms represent an increasingly recognized problem in cats. As in dogs, heartworms are transmitted by feeding mosquitoes and, once mature, end up in the right side of the heart and the large vessels of the lungs. For cats, the likelihood of heartworm infection is directly related to the number of infected dogs in the area.
While infection rates in cats (not the typical host for heartworms) are lower than in dogs, studies have shown that up 10-14% of shelter cats are infected. Because mosquitoes can transmit the disease, being an indoor-only cat does not prevent a cat from getting infected. Signs of heartworm infection in cats can vary in severity from asymptomatic to sudden death.
How will heartworms affect my cat?
The heartworm larvae, which enter the cat’s bloodstream after it is bitten by an infected mosquito, eventually migrate to the heart or blood vessels of the lungs. Here the larvae cause a severe reaction, resulting in lack of oxygen exchange and cough.
Signs of infection are variable but most often are related to the respiratory system. A veterinarian may suspect that a cat has been infected in cases of coughing, wheezing, difficulty breathing, vomiting, lethargy or weight loss. While some cats will have very mild signs, others can develop signs of congestive heart failure. Some cats will suffer from sudden death as a result of the death of one or more worms.
Testing for heartworm infection
Because the number of worms infecting cats is usually lower than in dogs, the diagnosis of heartworm can be more challenging. Bloodwork, x-rays and a sonogram of the heart may all be needed to determine whether or not your cat has been infected with heartworms.
How do I prevent my cat from getting heartworms?
Heartworms are found in cats in all 50 states, so all cats are at risk, even those animals that live indoors. However, heartworms are preventable.
Ask your veterinarian about heartworm prevention. Preventive treatment should begin after a blood test has been conducted to determine if your cat has already been exposed or is infected.
Is heartworm disease treatable in the cat?
At the present time, there are no acceptable treatments for eliminating heartworms from infected cats. Your veterinarian may treat your cat’s symptoms if it is displaying signs of disease. Because of the potential for serious or fatal consequences of infection, and lack of approved treatment, preventing heartworm is the best strategy.
Can humans contract the disease?
Isolated cases of human infection have been reported. However, the heartworm is generally not considered a risk to human health and transmission from your cat directly to you is not possible.
For veterinary professionals, more detailed information on heartworm can be found at https://www.capcvet.org/guidelines/heartworm/.
Did you know?
- While heartworms are more common in dogs than in cats, cats can get heartworms too.
- Cats get infected by being bitten by a mosquito that has bitten an infected dog.
- Serious illness and even death can occur when a cat is infected with heartworms.
- Unlike dogs, there is no approved treatment once infected so preventing infection is especially important.
- Your veterinarian can provide a program for heartworm prevention.
- Ear Mites
Ask Your Veterinarian
The more that dogs in your area have heartworm, the more likely your cat is to be infected. There are safe and effective medications for preventing heartworm in cats. Do not give your cat the same medicine your dog gets for heartworm prevention, as their needs are different. Be certain to use a monthly combination heartworm preventive and internal parasite control product every month.