What is heartworm disease?
Heartworm disease is a serious and potentially fatal disease in pets in the United States and many other parts of the world. It is caused by foot-long worms (heartworms) that live in the heart, lungs and associated blood vessels of affected pets, causing severe lung disease, heart failure and damage to other organs in the body. Heartworm disease affects dogs, cats and ferrets, but heartworms also live in other mammal species, including wolves, coyotes, foxes, sea lions and—in rare instances—humans. Because wild species such as foxes and coyotes live in proximity to many urban areas, they are considered important carriers of the disease.
The dog is a natural host for heartworms, which means that heartworms that live inside the dog mature into adults, mate and produce offspring. If untreated, their numbers can increase, and dogs have been known to harbor several hundred worms in their bodies. Heartworm disease causes lasting damage to the heart, lungs and arteries, and can affect the dog’s health and quality of life long after the parasites are gone. For this reason, prevention is by far the best option, and treatment—when needed—should be administered as early in the course of the disease as possible.
Ferrets. Ferrets are extremely susceptible to heartworm disease and are at risk for the disease even if they are indoor pets. Just one heartworm in a ferret can cause serious disease or death. The American Heartworm Society recommends year-round prevention for ferrets as well as regular checkups with a veterinarian to ensure they stay healthy and heartworm-free.
How is heartworm disease transmitted from one pet to another?
The mosquito plays an essential role in the heartworm life cycle. Adult female heartworms living in an infected dog, fox, coyote, or wolf produce microscopic baby worms called microfilaria that circulate in the bloodstream. When a mosquito bites and takes a blood meal from an infected animal, it picks up these baby worms, which develop and mature into “infective stage” larvae over a period of 10 to 14 days. Then, when the infected mosquito bites another dog, cat, or susceptible wild animal, the infective larvae are deposited onto the surface of the animal's skin and enter the new host through the mosquito’s bite wound. Once inside a new host, it takes approximately 6 months for the larvae to mature into adult heartworms. Once mature, heartworms can live for 5 to 7 years in dogs and up to 2 or 3 years in cats. Because of the longevity of these worms, each mosquito season can lead to an increasing number of worms in an infected pet.
What are the signs of heartworm disease in ferrets?
The signs of heartworm disease in ferrets are similar to those in dogs, but they develop more rapidly because the ferret’s heart is quite small. While dogs may not show symptoms until they have many worms infecting their hearts, lungs and blood vessels, just one worm can cause serious respiratory distress in a ferret. Symptoms of this distress include • Lethargy (i.e., fatigue, tiredness) • Open-mouth and/or rapid breathing • Pale blue or muddy gum color • Coughing
How significant is my ferret's risk for heartworm infection?
Many factors must be considered, even if heartworms do not seem to be a problem in your local area. Your community may have a greater incidence of heartworm disease than you realize—or you may unknowingly travel with your pet to an area where heartworms are more common. Heartworm disease is also spreading to new regions of the country each year. Stray and neglected dogs and certain wildlife such as coyotes, wolves, and foxes can be carriers of heartworms. Mosquitoes blown great distances by the wind and the relocation of infected pets to previously uninfected areas also contribute to the spread of heartworm disease (this happened following Hurricane Katrina when 250,000 pets, many of them infected with heartworms, were “adopted” and shipped throughout the country).
The fact is that heartworm disease has been diagnosed in all 50 states, and risk factors are impossible to predict. Multiple variables, from climate variations to the presence of wildlife carriers, cause rates of infections to vary dramatically from year to year—even within communities. And because infected mosquitoes can come inside, both outdoor and indoor pets are at risk.
For that reason, the American Heartworm Society recommends that you “think 12:” (1) get your pet tested every 12 months for heartworm and (2) give your pet heartworm preventive 12 months a year.
What do I need to know about heartworm testing?
Heartworm disease is a serious, progressive disease. The earlier it is detected, the better the chances the pet will recover. There are few, if any, early signs of disease when a dog or cat is infected with heartworms, so detecting their presence with a heartworm test administered by a veterinarian is important. The test requires just a small blood sample from your pet, and it works by detecting the presence of heartworm proteins. Some veterinarians process heartworm tests right in their hospitals while others send the samples to a diagnostic laboratory. In either case, results are obtained quickly. If your pet tests positive, further tests may be ordered.
When should my ferret be tested?
Diagnosis of heartworm disease in ferrets can be more problematic. Your veterinarian may recommend both antigen testing and diagnostic imaging such as echocardiography to demonstrate the presence of worm in the heart.
What if my ferret tests positive for heartworms?
Ferrets are extremely susceptible to heartworms. There are differences, however, in the nature of the disease and how it is diagnosed and managed. Ferrets are extremely susceptible to heartworms. Heartworms in the circulatory system also affect the ferret’s immune system and cause symptoms such as coughing, wheezing and difficulty breathing, even sudden death. Ferrets may also demonstrate fluid in the lungs, decreased appetite and weight loss, paralysis of the hind legs, or enlarged abdomen. Bilirubinuria (dark colored urine) is common in ferrets with heartworm disease.
Here’s what to expect if your ferret tests positive for heartworm:
- Diagnosis. As many as 14 heartworms have been found in a single ferret, but ferrets can be seriously affected by the presence of only one worm. Diagnosis can be complicated, requiring a physical exam, an X-ray or ultrasound exam, a complete blood count and several kinds of blood test.
- Treatment. Unfortunately, there is no approved drug therapy for heartworm infection in ferrets, and the drug used to treat infections in dogs is not safe for ferrets. Nevertheless, ferrets with heartworm disease can often be helped with good veterinary care. The goal is to stabilize your pet and determine a long-term management plan.
- Monitor your ferret. Most ferrets infected with heartworms will be showing clinical signs. If worms have been detected in the lungs, chest X-rays every 6 to 12 months may be recommended. If mild symptoms are noted, small doses of prednisolone may be administered to help reduce inflammation.
- Provide veterinary care. If the disease is severe, additional support may be necessary. Your veterinarian may recommend hospitalization in order to provide therapy, such as intravenous fluids, drugs to treat lung and heart symptoms, antibiotics, and general nursing care. In rare cases, surgical removal of heartworms may be possible.
- Maintain prevention. Ferrets are very susceptible to heartworm disease and the results of infection may be devastating. Both outdoor and indoor ferrets are at risk and your ferret should be on monthly preventive for life. Preventives keep new infections from developing if an infected mosquito bites your ferrets again.