Most pet owners have heard of heartworms. But what do heartworms look like, and how are they transmitted between animals?
Heartworms are large worms that live in the hearts of dogs and cats. They are also found in other species, including ferrets, foxes, wolves, sea lions, and horses. Dogs are the common host for this parasite.
Humans are not a natural host for heartworm, but there have been a few rare reports of human cases.
In humans, the heartworm is usually found as a single worm in the lung versus the heart.
Heartworm is also known as Dirofilaria Immitis. It is a long, spaghetti-like worm that can be anywhere from 6 to 14 inches in length (~17 - 27 cm). Female worms are longer than the male heartworms.
Bottom Line: Heartworms cannot be spread animal-to-animal; heartworms need a mosquito to complete their life cycle.
- A mosquito bites a heartworm-infected animal.
- The mosquito is then carrying microscopic versions of the heartworm, called microfilariae.
- When the mosquito bites another dog or cat, that animal is now infected with the heartworm microfilariae.
- Within 70 to 90 days, the microfilariae have made it through the tissues to the animal's heart, where they reproduce (providing both male and female worms are present) and live for several years. If both sexes of worms are present, they will be producing their own little microfilariae within 6-7 months after that mosquito bite.
- The cycle continues.
The best defense against heartworms is prevention. If you live in an area that has heartworm, a once a month chewable tablet will protect your pet from heartworm and other parasites. Please see your veterinarian to discuss what heartworm preventive is best for your pet.
Photos of heartworms and additional resources:
(warning some photos are graphic - not for the squeamish)
- Heartworms in a dog (cadaver)
- American Heartworm Society (Resources for pet owners, veterinarians and media resources.)
See Heartworm Answer Page for more heartworm topics.