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Canine Heartworms

Canine heartworm disease is caused by the bite of an infected mosquito. Larvae travel through the dogs blood vessels until they arrive in the right side of the ventricle of the heart and arteries of the lungs (where they can live as long as five years). Worms in the heart and lungs interfere with proper blood flow. Eventually, the dog develops high blood pressure.  If infestation becomes significant, the dog may experience congestive heart failure and/or kidney and liver failure.
Adult heartworms range in size from 6 to 12 inches (See picture at right).

How Heartworms are Transmitted 

The most common method of heartworm transmission is the mosquito. An infected dog carries thousands of microscopic larvae in its bloodstream. When a mosquito bites an infected dog, it swallows these tiny worms and passes the infective larvae along to the next dog it bites. When an infected mosquito bites another dog, it deposits the larvae via its saliva into the wound site. Three to four days after the second dog has been infected, the larvae begin their journey under the dog's skin. There are two more molting periods within the dog. The first lasts four to 10 days, the second 50 to 70 days.  As a result, any dog that is exposed to mosquitoes may be at risk, even if you don't live in a designated heartworm area. The strain of mosquitoes can vary from area to area, and the rate of transmission is directly proportional to the number of mosquitoes in the area.

Adult fertile female heartworms release thousands of microfilariae (tiny larvae) into the bloodstream of an infected dog. When the dog is bitten by a mosquito, the mosquito swallows these microfilariae. Within the mosquito, the microfilariae molt twice and grow to their infective stage.

Three months after the final molt, the worms reach sexual maturity, mate, release microfilariae, and complete their life cycle. Millions of microfilariae can be present in the blood of an infected dog.

It is very important to be sure that your dog is tested for possible heartworm infection before starting a prevention routine. Have your dog tested annually for heartworms and talk to your veterinarian about the appropriate heartworm preventive medication.

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