If you or a loved one were seriously threatened by a fatal disease, would you be willing to apply a topical preventive once a month?
That fatal disease could be closer than you think if your family includes one or more cats, either outdoor or indoor. Although it’s usually thought of as something dogs get, right now there’s a national epidemic of feline heart worm disease. Only you can save your cat(s).
This was the message delivered to medical staff at Northstar Vets, in Robbinsville, earlier this week by Nancy Shaffran, certified veterinary technician and specialist in emergency and critical care. She said, “Heartworm disease is more threatening to cats than fleas and ticks.”
In the last few years, Shaffran said, feline heartworm disease “has moved from one we knew was there to one that’s reached epidemic proportions.” She chastised the veterinary community for not doing a good job of warning people against this disease, which is “wholly preventable.”
Cats don’t host heartworm disease, she said, but they can get it from a mosquito that has bitten a “HW-positive dog.” With felines, the disease is potentially more serious than in dogs.
In contrast with dogs, the major cause of heartworm disease in cats occurs from the larval stage, Shaffran noted. Because feline immune systems can often kill and remove heartworm larvae before they reach adulthood, it had seemed unlikely that cats would develop symptoms of disease.
However, she said, “in the cat, heartworm disease presents as a pulmonary disease rather than a heart disease.” (That heartworm is a disease of the heart only is one of five “myths” Shaffran rebutted.)
“It’s not all asthma!” she cautioned the veterinary staffers. What is sometimes diagnosed as asthma or allergic bronchitis in a cat is actually Heartworm Associated Respiratory Disease, or HARD.
“Sudden death syndrome” – when a cat is alive and seemingly fine one minute and dead the next -- can be another result of feline heartworm disease.
Prevention is the only answer, Shaffran stressed. That includes prevention for indoor cats as well as outdoor cats, because “cats may not go out, but things come in.” She cited humans who can carry dangerous pests inside and the prevalence of open doors and windows, faulty screens and so on.
Female mosquitoes, the only ones that bite, are attracted by heat, body odor and movement, among other variables, and they can detect a moving target from 18 feet away. So, Shaffran said, “A mosquito comes inside and scans 18 feet around for the warmest thing there – the cat” (whose body temp is higher than dogs’ and people’s).
Why has feline heartworm disease reached an epidemic level now, after long being considered a regional disease? Shaffran gave two reasons: (1) the redistribution of thousands of HW-positive dogs after Hurricane Katrina, which fostered the disease being seen in all 50 states, (2) the effect of “white nose syndrome” in the mosquito-feeding bat population.
With the decimation of the little brown bats that formerly kept mosquitoes in check, there are ever more mosquitoes at large – ready to bite and in many cases, to spread heartworm disease.
Both factors make it imperative for cat owners to protect their cats through year-round prevention – the only approved approach for feline heartworm disease, Shaffran stressed. Oral and topical parasiticides are “extremely effective,” she reported, specifically citing the Pfizer Animal Health product, “revolution.”
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Freelance writer Pat Summers also blogs at www.nj.com/pets. Two days ago, she administered their first monthly “revolution” dose to the two cats in her family.