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What is heartworm disease?

Heartworm disease is a preventable but serious and potentially fatal parasitic disease that mostly affects dogs and cats. The heart and lungs are the major organs affected by heartworms in dogs. Adult heartworms can be up to 14 inches long, and live in the right side of the heart and the pulmonary arteries, which connect the heart to the lungs. Blockage and injury caused by heartworms can lead to heart failure and can also damage other organs, such as the liver and kidneys.

Heartworms are transmitted by mosquitoes. Adult female heartworms release their young (microfilariae) into the bloodstream of infected animals. When a mosquito bites an infected animal, it takes up blood containing these microfilariae. When the mosquito bites another animal the infective larvae are passed on to the second animal through the wound. Infective larvae migrate through the tissues of the body for 2 to 3 months, and then enter the heart and pulmonary arteries, where they reach adult size in another 3 months. If both sexes are present, the mature worms will mate and produce new microfilariae and the cycle begins again. The mosquito is the only natural agent of transmission for heartworms.

Cats rarely develop microfilaremia. When present, microfilariae are usually short lived. Some cats rid themselves of heartworm infections spontaneously, whereas infective larvae in other cats may mature into adult heartworms that can cause serious disease.

Heartworms are considered to be a potential threat in each of the 48 contiguous United States, as well as in Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Central and South America, Canada, Europe, Japan, Australia, the Virgin Islands, and Guam. All dogs, regardless of age, sex, or living environment, are susceptible to heartworm infection. Indoor and outdoor cats are also at risk for acquiring the disease.

Can an owner tell if their dog or cat has heartworm disease? Pets recently or only mildly infected with heartworms may show no signs of disease. In later stages, dogs may cough, lose their appetite, become lethargic, or have difficulty breathing. Veterinarians can detect heartworm infection in its early stages by testing your pet’s blood for the presence of circulating microfilariae. Radiography of the chest is also helpful in making a diagnosis, and it may aid in giving some indication of the severity of infection. Clinical signs in cats are similar to that of dogs. Most cats never show signs of disease, though. While the diagnostic approach to heartworm disease in cats is similar to that used for dogs, diagnosis is much more difficult because cats usually harbor very few adult worms.

Can pets infected with heartworms be treated? Most dogs can be treated successfully if heartworm disease is detected early. Diagnostic tests, such as blood tests and radiography, can help determine whether your pet can safely undergo treatment. Adult heartworms are killed with a drug called adulticide, which is given through a series of carefully administered injections. Following treatment with the adulticide, complete rest is needed. Excitement and exercise should be avoided for at least two months to prevent adverse effects associated with partial or complete blockage of blood flow through the lungs by dead worms. A gradual return to normal activity follows. There is always some risk involved in treating a dog for heartworms. However, serious complications are rare among dogs that are in otherwise good health.

There are no approved products in the U.S. for treating heartworm infection in cats. Cats are more resistant to heartworms than dogs, and many rid themselves of infection spontaneously.

Can heartworm disease be prevented? Heartworm disease is almost 100% preventable by administration of monthly oral or topical medications. Prior to beginning a preventive program, a blood test for the presence of heartworms is necessary. Heartworm prevention must then be given monthly for the remainder of your pet’s life. Retesting for heartworms once a year is strongly recommended for dogs, even if you have given your dog heartworm prevention every month, because they could have a severe and possibly fatal reaction to the medication if heartworms are present.

How do I prevent my pet from becoming infested with fleas and ticks?

Fleas and ticks are not only an unpleasant nuisance—they can also pose a serious health threat for both you and your pet. Fleas can carry tapeworm larvae which, if ingested, can lead to tapeworm infestation in your pet. This can cause malnutrition and other health concerns for your cat or dog. Not only that, but many pets are allergic to flea bites and may develop severe itching and skin infections.

Ticks can carry numerous diseases, such as Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Lyme Disease, Ehrlichiosis, etc. All of these diseases will be harmful, if not fatal, to your pet and your family.

Due to our generally mild winter season in North Alabama which does not allow fleas and ticks to be completely killed off, we recommend using flea and tick control products year-round. There are several products available, depending on your pet’s level of exposure. When you visit our hospital, our staff will be happy to discuss your pet’s needs, so that your pet and family can be fully protected.

Why is it so important to have my pet spayed or neutered?

“Spaying ” (medical term is “ovariohysterectomy”) is a surgical procedure in the female pet which removes both the ovaries and the uterus. In the dog and cat, one of the major reasons for performing the sterilization surgery is to eliminate the annoying signs of heat which cause males to be attracted. If the uterus alone were removed, the pet would still come into heat, but could not get pregnant. Removal of both the ovaries and uterus completely eliminate the heat cycle.

Castration is the medical term for surgically sterilizing the male dog or cat. The testicles are removed because they are the major source of male hormones, which cause sexual interest, aggression, and urine marking of territory. Therefore, neutering the male pet provides significant advantage to the pet owner, as well as eliminating the ability to produce unwanted offspring and decreasing the risk of future medical problems, such as prostate and testicular cancer.

Altering your cat or dog DOES NOT change their personality (except as an improvement, such as less aggression, less roaming and less territorial marking, etc.), and it does not cause a significant weight gain. The only disadvantages of surgically altering your pet are the minimal anesthesia risks (the recommended pre-surgical bloodwork greatly reduces the risk of adverse affects), and the cost of surgery. Bu t remember, this procedure is a “once in a lifetime” procedure for your pet, and one that will greatly improve your pet’s quality of life, as well as making your pet a more “tolerable” companion for you and your family.

Why are pre-anesthetic and diagnostic testing so important for my pet?

Regardless of age, physical examination and medical history of your pet, we recommend diagnostic testing to identify health problems and begin treatment as early as possible. These tests are especially helpful when your pet just isn’t feeling right and symptoms are hard to define.

If your pet is going to be placed under anesthesia, we strongly recommend pre-anesthetic blood testing. With all of the advancements in the veterinary health care, anesthesia is extremely safe for healthy pets. But sometimes it can be difficult to tell if your pet is healthy without testing. And if your pet is not healthy complications can occur both during and after the anesthetic procedure. We can minimize any potential risks when we know the health status of your pet before administering anesthesia.

Pets can’t tell us when they don’t feel well. A pet may appear healthy but could be hiding symptoms of a disease or ailment. For example, a pet can lose up to 75% of kidney function before showing any signs of illness. Since the liver and kidneys are the organs responsible for the breakdown and elimination of anesthesia from the body, it is extremely important to make sure these organs, as well as other organs and functions, are behaving properly. Pre-anesthetic testing does not gurantee the absence of anesthetic complications. It does, however, greatly reduce the risk of complications as well as identify medical conditions that could require medical treatment.

These tests also provide baseline levels for your pet and become part of his or her medical chart for future reference.

What is dental disease and why is it important to have my pet’s teeth cleaned?

Dental disease is as common in dogs and cats as it is in humans. The most common form of dental disease in humans is caries (cavities). However, this is not the case in dogs and cats. The most common form of canine and feline dental disease is tartar buildup. This causes irritation of the gums around the base of the teeth (gingivitis), resulting in exposure of the roots. Ultimately, this leads to infection and tooth loss and a lot of unnecessary pain for your pet.

About 75% of all dental problems serious enough to be seen by a veterinarian, (and almost all teeth lost), are the result of periodontal disease. It is the cause of 95% of all cases of “bad breath.” In advanced cases, it results in infected, foul-smelling, loosened teeth, with a massive, unsightly accumulation of tartar. Often there is a loss of appetite due to painful gums. Even signs such as diarrhea, vomiting and irritability may be the result of this disease. Food material, bacteria, and saliva accumulate and adhere to the tooth surface, forming a soft “plaque.” This material can be easily removed at this point. However, if buildup is allowed to continue, it becomes hard and “chalk-like” from its mineral content. The tartar buildup causes erosion of the gums, with subsequent inflammation and infection of the tooth socket. The teeth then become loose, and may even fall out. The gums become reddened, swollen, and bleed easily. The pet often salivates excessively from the associated pain. The buildup of this material allows bacteria to constantly grow in the infected mouth tissue. These bacteria may enter the bloodstream through the bleeding gums, and cause such problems as heart valve infections (endocarditis) and kidney infections (nephritis). This condition becomes very painful for the animal, as well as causing it to be unpleasant due to the bad mouth odor. Once this tartar forms on the teeth, a professional cleaning is absolutely necessary. One of the main factors determining the amount of tartar buildup is the individual chemistry in the mouth. Some pets need yearly or even twice yearly cleanings; other pets need a cleaning only once every few years.

What does tartar do to the teeth? If tartar is allowed to remain on the teeth, several things may happen:

  • The tartar will push the gums away from the roots of the teeth. This allows the teeth to loosen in their sockets and infection to enter the root socket. The teeth will loosen and fall out or have to be extracted.
  • Infection will accumulate in the mouth, resulting in gingivitis, tonsillitis, and pharyngitis (sore throat). Although antibiotics may temporarily suppress the infection, if the tartar is not removed from the teeth infection will return quickly.
  • Infection within the mouth will be picked up by the bloodstream and carried to other parts of the body. Kidney infections, as well as infections involving the heart valves, frequently begin in the mouth.

So, as you can see, keeping your pet’s teeth cleaned is an extremely important part of keeping your pet healthy. Once your pet is in need of a professional cleaning, anesthesia is required to thoroughly clean the teeth. Although anestheisa always carries a degree of risk, the modern anesthetics used in our hospital minimize this risk. We recommend pre-anesthetic blood testing before each time your pet goes under anesthesia, even if your pet appears relatively healthy. This testing will help to greatly reduce the risk of any complications that may occur with anesthesia.

How old does my dog/cat need to be for a spay/neuter/declaw to be performed?

The earliest we recommend spaying or neutering your dog or cat is when they are 5 – 6 months of age. Attempting to perform surgery any earlier than that poses a greater risk for complications with the anesthesia and/or with the surgery itself. For males, both testicles must be descended for the neuter to be performed.

The earliest we recommend declawing cats is 3 months of age. If at all possible, it’s best to wait until they are 5 – 6 months of age, so that they can be altered and declawed at the same time. By doing this, your cat is only subjected to anesthesia once, which is better for his/her health, and you only have to pay for anesthesia once, which is better for the health of your wallet. If you are interested in having your older cat declawed, it’s best to speak with the veterinarian about your options, especially if your cat is overweight.

What vaccinations do you recommend for my dog/cat?

What we recommend for yearly vaccinations for dogs and cats can sometimes differ, depending on your pet’s lifestyle, history, and risk of exposure to certain diseases. In general, here is what our hospital recommends:

For Dogs (once a year)

  • Rabies
  • DHLPP (a combination vaccination which includes Distemper, Hepatitis, Leptospirosis, Parvovirus, and Parainfluenza vaccines)
  • Bordetella — recommended yearly, or every 6 months if only a 6 month vaccine is administered (commonly called Kennel Cough, it’s an upper respiratory infection that can become serious, if not fatal)
  • Influenza (Bivalent vaccine) — currently there are two strains of canine flu that we recommended vaccination for: H3N2 and H3N8 (the bivalent vaccine contains both)
  • Lyme Vaccination
  • Heartworm Testing
  • Intestinal Parasite Testing

For Cats (once a year)

  • Rabies
  • FVRCP (a combination vaccination which includes Rhinotracheitis, Calici virus, Panleukopenia, and Chlamydia vaccines)
  • Feline Leukemia
  • Bordetella — recommended every 6 months (commonly called “Kennel Cough,” it’s an upper respiratory infection that can become very serious, if not fatal)
  • Yearly deworming for intestinal parasites and/or Intestinal Parasite Testing

What is laser surgery and why is it better for my pet?

A laser is a device that generates an intense beam of light at a specific wavelength. The surgical laser that we use produces an invisible beam of light that vaporizes the water normally found in the skin and other soft tissue. Because we can precisely control the laser, only a thin layer of tissue is removed, leaving the surrounding areas unaffected.

Laser energy seals nerve endings as it moves through tissue, resulting in less pain for your pet post-operatively. The laser seals small blood vessels during surgery which allows us to perform surgeries with extraordinary precision. This results in less bleeding during surgery, and also speeds some procedures, reducing the need for longer-lasting anesthesia. With laser surgery there is also much lessing swelling at the surgical site because laser energy does not crush, tear, or bruise the tissue.

Using lasers for surgery reduces the risk of infection because it sterilizes as it removes tissue, killing bacteria that causes infection. Because of the precision in cutting, the laser can remove unhealthy tissue while minimizing adverse affects to healthy surrounding tissue. And your pet can make a quick return to his/her normal activities because recovery time after laser surgery is much quicker than surgery by scalpel, and also because post-operative pain is significantly less than that from surgeries performed by scalpel.

What are some of the common household items that are toxic for my pet?

Here’s a list of some of the more common household items that are toxic for pets:


  • Chocolate
  • Salt
  • Raisins & Grapes
  • Meat fat or skin
  • Pork products
  • Beef products
  • Alcoholic beverages
  • Avocado
  • Yeast dough
  • Coffee, Caffeine (all forms)
  • Fatty foods
  • Macadamia nuts
  • Moldy/spoiled foods
  • Onions, onion powder
  • Garlic
  • Products sweetened with Xylitol sweetener


  • Sago Palm
  • Lilies
  • Tulip/Narcissus bulbs
  • Azalea/Rhododendron
  • Castor Bean
  • Cyclamen
  • Kalanchoe
  • Yew
  • Mistletoe
  • Poinsettias
  • Blue/Green algae
  • Aloe
  • Ivy
  • Marijuana
  • Morning Glory
  • Nightshade


  • Ibuprofen
  • Acetaminophen
  • Aspirin
  • Human prescriptions
  • Batteries
  • Rat Poison
  • Insecticide
  • Citronella
  • Dryer sheets
  • Anti-freeze
  • Harsh cleaners

If there is a possibility your pet has consumed any of these products (or any other possibly toxic item), please call your veterinarian or the local animal emergency hospital as soon as possible! Chances of survival increases the faster your pet receives treatment.

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