Heartworms in Cats – They’re Not Just for Dogs!

Sylvester, Felix, Garfield, Simba, Nala, Morris, Heathcliff, Figaro, Milo, Sassy, Crookshanks, Hello Kitty, Puss In Boots, and Cat in the Hat all have something in common. They are “famous cats.” Although your cat may not be as famous as these cats they are still very important to you. That is why they need to be protected from heartworms.

That’s right, heartworms in cats – they’re not just for dogs! Many owners don’t realize that cats need to be on a prevention program for heartworm disease just like dogs. But it is true: cats do get heartworm disease and can die from this preventable parasite.

Heartworm disease in cats behaves somewhat differently than in dogs. In cats, smaller worm burdens, or a smaller number of worms, can cause more severe disease. This is because cats and their hearts are smaller. Feline immune system can sometimes “fight off” the parasite, which can make diagnosis more of a challenge. Unlike the dog, there is NO TREATMENT available for cats if they become infected. Because of these factors, prevention is vitally important to protect your cat.

As a veterinarian with a companion animal practice, I get questions from pet owners about cats and heartworm frequently. Here are some of the most common, and the advice I give my clients.

What are some of the symptoms of heartworm disease in cats?

Signs can include: coughing, vomiting, difficulty breathing, sluggishness, or even sudden death.

My cat is only indoors, so they don’t need to be on prevention, correct?

No, this is incorrect. Just like with dogs, the mosquito is the culprit (vector) that transmit the disease. We all know that mosquitoes can get into our homes. Although an indoor cat is less likely to get bitten by a mosquito, if they do, and it is the “right mosquito” they are more likely to contract the disease since they haven’t been exposed and their immune system may not be able to “fight off” the disease.  Some studies actually show that up to 55% of exclusively indoors cats may have been exposed to or infected with heartworms.

How is heartworm disease diagnosed in my cat?

Blood tests are the primary means of diagnosis, although other tests such as radiographs or ultrasound may be used. With regards to the blood tests, both an antigen test (like in the dog) and an antibody test (looking for exposure to heartworm) may be used. Since worm burdens (populations) are usually small in cats and the antigen tests look for a specific protein from the adult female worm, there can be false negatives. Also, the immune system may of “cleared” the active infection. This is why an antibody test is used in addition to the antigen test.

How do I prevent or protect my cat from heartworm disease?

Both oral and topical preventions are available. They are used once monthly just as with dog products. Some products also protect your cat from other internal parasites, as well as some other external parasites. Your veterinarian can discuss options and what would be best to fit your cat’s lifestyle.

If you are a gambler, you can do that with cards. Hit Vegas, play the casinos, wager on sporting events or gamble (legally) elsewhere.  However, don’t gamble with your cat’s health.  Place them on a preventative program against heartworm disease. Odds may be in your favor that your cat won’t get heartworm disease but if they do, then in that case you lose. Not keeping them on a preventative program that could protect them from this awful disease is putting their health and potentially their life at risk.


-Photo Credit: from flickr by ojonudo

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