Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Adult heartworms grow up to a foot long, block blood flow around the heart, and cause inflammation within blood vessels. The damage continues as long as the heartworms remain in the body.
Heartworm treatment protocols for dogs are designed to remove the worms while reducing the risk of treatment complications. No safe heartworm treatment exists for cats and ferrets. Your veterinarian can recommend appropriate heartworm preventives for your dog, cat, or ferret.
Heartworm infection is diagnosed with a blood test. Your veterinarian might confirm the diagnosis with another test before proceeding with treatment.
Other tests, like x-ray imaging, echocardiography (heart ultrasound), and other blood tests, are used to assess the extent of damage. The results can affect the treatment plan, so your veterinarian might recommend these tests even if your dog isn’t showing any symptoms of infection. Dogs with blood clotting problems or signs of heart disease need a full diagnostic workup before treatment starts.
Any activity that increases the heart rate and blood pressure can worsen the problems caused by heartworms. Dogs with heartworms need to stay as quiet as possible to limit the damage. Once treatment begins, pieces of dead worms can break off and lodge in small blood vessels, potentially causing serious problems and even death. Strict exercise restriction is the best way to reduce the risk.
The American Heartworm Society (AHS) recommends restricting activity from the time heartworms are diagnosed until 6 to 8 weeks after the last dose of heartworm treatment. Dogs should ideally stay indoors in a small area where they can’t run or jump. Some dogs need to be confined to a crate. They should go outdoors on a leash only long enough to pee and poop. Ask your veterinarian about the level of confinement your dog needs.
Before Killing the Heartworms
Before dogs begin receiving adulticide (medication that kills adult heartworms), they may need treatment for heartworm-related problems. They should receive a certain type of heartworm preventive to remove larvae, or immature worms, from the bloodstream. They also benefit from a monthlong course of doxycycline, an antibiotic, to eliminate a bacterium that lives inside heartworm cells. This bacterium is partly responsible for the inflammation that occurs when heartworms die.
The AHS recommends that dogs start adulticide treatment 2 months after receiving a heartworm diagnosis (30 days after the last dose of doxycycline). Dogs should have limited activity during these 2 months.
The only adulticide currently approved for use in the United States is melarsomine. This drug is given by injection in a veterinary hospital. Your dog may need to stay in the hospital for observation after a melarsomine injection.
The number and timing of injections may vary depending on the situation. The current AHS recommendation is to give a series of 3 injections: 1 injection followed by a 30-day wait, then 2 injections given 24 hours apart. Your veterinarian will suggest a protocol that’s appropriate for your own dog.
Complete exercise restriction is crucial during adulticide treatment and for several weeks after the last dose. Your veterinarian may also prescribe medications to reduce adverse effects of treatment.
Your dog can be retested for heartworms several months after the last melarsomine injection. The goal of treatment is to remove all stages of heartworms.
Protocols to manage heartworm infection without using melarsomine are sometimes called “slow-kill” treatments. These protocols consist of giving doxycycline for a month and beginning a specific type of heartworm preventive to remove larvae. Heartworms take from several months to a year or more to die with these protocols.
The disadvantage of slow-kill treatment is that it allows adult heartworms to remain in the body for much longer than with adulticide treatment. The worms continue to damage the heart and blood vessels during this time. For this reason, the AHS does not recommend this method as standard treatment. Dogs receiving slow-kill treatment should also have exercise restriction for as long as adult heartworms remain in the body.
The advantage of slow-kill treatment is that it costs much less than melarsomine. Slow-kill methods have been proposed for dogs that would otherwise go untreated or be euthanized, like those in shelters or in areas where melarsomine is not available. Slow-kill treatment also offers an option for dogs at high risk of complications from adulticide treatment.
For More Information
See these resources from the American Heartworm Society:
Battling Boredom: Tips for Surviving Cage Rest (PDF)
Heartworm Positive Dogs: What Happens if My Dog Tests Positive for Heartworms?
Heartworm Treatment Guidelines for the Pet Owner (PDF)
Photo by Ryan McGuire
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM