Heartworm is a typical health concern your veterinarian warns you about. You may think these small worms can’t do damage, but they can cause lasting health issues for your furry friend. As with most diseases that affect our pets, preventative care is most often recommended and encouraged to avoid costly vet bills and lasting problems for your pet.
The average cost of heartworm treatment for dogs can be upwards of $2,700 — and potentially thousands more if surgery is needed.2 If your pet has been diagnosed with heartworm, treatment varies greatly depending on whether you have a dog or cat.
Unfortunately, there are no approved heartworm treatment options for cats.3 Heartworms are more common in dogs, but they still pose a risk to your feline friend. Testing for heartworms in cats can range from $30 to $75, and the only common treatment is surgery that can cost thousands.3 Overall, preventative medicine and care can ensure your kitty stays healthy and your vet bills stay affordable.
Heartworm disease is caused by foot-long worms that burrow in the heart, lungs, and blood vessels. When left untreated, this could lead to disease in the lungs, as well as heart and organ failure. Heartworms are not contagious from other dogs or cats, so they won’t get them from a heartworm-infected pet, but they are transmitted through mosquito bites.4
There are several ways to determine if your pet has heartworm, including symptoms like loss of appetite, weight loss, difficulty breathing, nose bleeds, and other symptoms associated with the heart, lungs, and blood vessels. Heartworm disease presents itself differently in dogs and cats, which means different approaches are taken to testing and treatment.
Since dog heartworm symptoms can differ from what’s common in cats, there are different points at which heartworm disease is diagnosed and can be readily treated. There are four primary stages of heartworm disease found in dogs:6
- Stage 1: The dog is symptom-free, but heartworms are already making their way to the heart and other parts of the body. During this stage, heartworms are undetectable by testing, and they have not yet reproduced.
- Stage 2: Symptoms appear during this stage, including exhaustion and coughing, and a blood test can reveal a heartworm’s presence.
- Stage 3: Symptoms begin impacting the dog’s health, including difficulty breathing and coughing up blood. At this stage, heartworms can appear on x-rays.
- Stage 4: Symptoms are severe at this stage and can result in long-term health concerns, such as liver and heart failure, and even death.
While dogs present several different stages from the point heartworm enters the body, cats only exhibit two stages:5
- Stage 1: Heartworms enter the cat’s pulmonary arteries, where many of them die early in their lifecycle. The blood vessels react to the invasion and it’s often misdiagnosed as asthma, but it’s known as heartworm-associated respiratory disease (HARD).
- Stage 2: The adult heartworms die, which often leads to an embolism inside the cat’s narrow blood vessels that could be fatal for your cat. If the cat survives the adult heartworm death, they will experience lasting severe respiratory issues.
Heartworm medicine for dogs includes medication like doxycycline, an antibiotic designed to weaken heartworms, and steroids administered over the course of several months.2 If these options don’t work, end-stage treatment involves rounds of melarsomine, an injection administered on day 60, 90, and 91 of treatment. Strict exercise restrictions must be followed for treatment to work for your dog. These options can cost anywhere from $500 to $1,500, and your dog may not be eligible for treatment if they are too ill or weak to exercise.
The only heartworm treatment for cats, which is also available to dogs, is surgery.4 This is considered a risky option by experts, as serious complications can occur if the heartworms are not removed completely. Surgery can cost up to $6,000 and is not guaranteed to be effective. Luckily for dogs, there are several alternative options before surgery is considered.
Heartworm prevention medicine is significantly less expensive than the cost of treatment. Take measures to protect your pet like keeping them out of heavily wooded areas where mosquitoes thrive during heartworm season. With monthly medications and annual check-ups to make sure your pet is heartworm-free, it should only cost you a few hundred dollars a year.
If you have a rescue animal, it’s important to get them tested within a few months after rescuing them to ensure your furry friend hasn’t been infected with heartworms since becoming a member of your family. It can take up to 6 months for heartworms to test positive, so this is a crucial step in early detection.7
Ensuring your pet takes their heartworm preventative medication on a monthly basis is the single best way to protect them from heartworm disease. Learn more about what pet insurance can cover and how MetLife’s Dog Insurance can help offset the costs of preventative care and treatment.1