What happens if my dog tests positive for heartworms?
No one wants to hear that their dog has heartworm, but the good news is that most infected dogs can be successfully treated. The goal is to first stabilize your dog if he is showing signs of disease, then kill all adult and immature worms while keeping the side effects of treatment to a minimum.
Here's what you should expect if your dog tests positive:
- Confirm the diagnosis. Once a dog tests positive on an antigen test, the diagnosis should be confirmed with an additional—and different—test. Because the treatment regimen for heartworm is both expensive and complex, your veterinarian will want to be absolutely sure that treatment is necessary.
- Restrict exercise. This requirement might be difficult to adhere to, especially if your dog is accustomed to being active. But your dog’s normal physical activities must be restricted as soon as the diagnosis is confirmed, because physical exertion increases the rate at which the heartworms cause damage in the heart and lungs. The more severe the symptoms, the less activity your dog should have.
- Stabilize your dog's disease. Before actual heartworm treatment can begin, your dog’s condition may need to be stabilized with appropriate therapy. In severe cases of heartworm disease, or when a dog has another serious condition, the process can take several months.
- Administer treatment. Once your veterinarian has determined your dog is stable and ready for heartworm treatment, he or she will recommend a treatment protocol involving several steps. The American Heartworm Society has guidelines for developing this plan of attack. Dogs with no signs or mild signs of heartworm disease, such as cough or exercise intolerance, have a high success rate with treatment. More severe disease can also be successfully treated, but the possibility of complications is greater. The severity of heartworm disease does not always correlate with the severity of symptoms, and dogs with many worms may have few or no symptoms early in the course of the disease.
- Test (and prevent) for success. Approximately 6 months after treatment is completed, your veterinarian will perform a heartworm test to confirm that all heartworms have been eliminated. To avoid the possibility of your dog contracting heartworm disease again, you will want to administer heartworm prevention year-round for the rest of his life.
My dog has heartworms. My vet started her on monthly prevention before he started treatment. Is this OK?
Yes, it is recommended in the American Heartworm Society's Guidelines to do so. This should be done under the direct supervision of a veterinarian because dogs with microfilaria (baby worms in the blood that the mosquito picks up when feeding) could possibly have a reaction to the preventive. And while this is an extra-label use of heartworm preventives, it is appropriate under the supervision of a veterinarian. However, it is important that your veterinarian assesses the severity of the disease and chooses the proper preventive accordingly. By starting the prevention program you are ensuring that your dog will not get a new heartworm infection while being treated for the existing heartworm disease. Furthermore, you are helping to keep your dog from being a source of heartworm larvae (microfilaria) for mosquitoes to pick up and eventually infect other dogs. This approach makes the treatment of the existing infection more effective.