Watch out for these easily overlooked pet health issues

For Howard Magazine
Roundworms, heartworm, high blood pressure, oh my! Watch out for these health issues in your pet.

We’ve covered some of the important pet health maintenance issues most likely to be overlooked or undervalued by well-meaning owners: dental health and weight management. This time, we’ll examine intestinal parasites, feline heartworm disease and hypertension.

Worms, worms, worms

Roundworms, tapeworms, hookworms and whipworms are not an appetizing subject, but they are common ailments that can make dogs and cats quite sick. They may even be fatal, especially for puppies and kittens, older pets or those weakened by other illnesses. The best way to detect the presence of parasites is a stool sample lab test, which is typically part of a pet’s annual checkup. Yet some pet owners forget to bring a fresh stool sample.

This lab test plays a crucial part in keeping our cats and dogs healthy, since common symptoms of parasite infestation (diarrhea, weight loss, dry hair and general poor appearance and vomiting) may resemble those of other illnesses. Some parasites don’t cause any noticeable symptoms at all; some worm eggs or larvae may remain dormant in an animal’s body and activate only in times of stress. Roundworms and hookworms may be inactive until late stages of pregnancy when they revive and infest the unborn puppies and kittens.

Cats allowed outside without supervision are especially prone to worms since they love to hunt and eat parasite-carrying rodents, and they are routinely exposed to places where other animals defecate. Cats with fleas are also more likely to get tapeworms and, if they don’t get regular preventive health care, are at generally higher risk for internal parasites. Preventive measures for cats include keeping them indoors to minimize exposure to parasite sources; keeping your pets, home and yard flea-free; and wearing gloves and/or washing hands thoroughly tending litter boxes, which should be cleaned and have litter changed often.

If parasites are detected and identified, your veterinarian will prescribe a deworming product to best targets the particular parasite. We suggest avoiding over-the-counter dewormers, which may not be as effective. Never use dewormer without a vet’s supervision; pets with persistent cases should be checked more frequently and may need year-round maintenance treatment. While it’s not possible to totally prevent intestinal parasites, we recommend that dog owners clean up solid waste immediately and cat owners clean out litter boxes often. If you take your pup to a dog park, where it’s easy for parasites to be spread, it’s extra important to have your dog checked more often by your vet.

In addition, under certain conditions intestinal parasites can be spread from pets to their humans, with kids most at risk if they play in spots where dog, cat or raccoon feces may be present, such as in a sandbox. Your veterinarian can suggest preventive sanitary measures to limit this risk.

Achy-breaky heartworm

While heartworm, a parasitic roundworm, may be more commonly associated with dogs, cats should also be tested annually and given regular preventive treatment. Outdoor cats are twice as likely to get heartworm disease as indoor cats — but indoor living status is no guaranteed protection, since heartworm larvae are spread by mosquito bites, and mosquitoes don’t always stay outside. Feline heartworm symptoms may include coughing, labored raspy breathing and vomiting; a complete examination sometimes reveals a heart murmur or irregular heartbeat.

As in humans, high blood pressure (hypertension) can affect and damage the heart, kidneys, eyes and nervous system. In early stages, hypertension may have no symptoms at all, or only mild ones. As it progresses, symptoms in cats and dogs may include seizures, disorientation, eye hemorrhages, blindness, blood in the urine, bleeding from the nose, swollen or shrunken kidneys, heart murmurs and weakness on one side of the body or in the legs.

(Blood) pressure’s on

While hypertension causes may be difficult to pinpoint, veterinarians measure blood pressure with a small version of the inflatable cuff humans use, placed on a cat’s paw or tail (though it’s not always easy to get cats to remain still long enough to get an accurate reading). Five to seven measurements, factoring in an animal’s stress level, usually give us accurate enough readings for diagnosis.

As for treatment, we try to deal with the underlying cause, if one can be identified. If not, then lifelong medication (either calcium channel blocker or beta-blocker) can keep hypertension under control, along with possible dietary changes including low-sodium food.

Your veterinarian can answer all your questions and provide more detailed information on any of these important things you can do to maintain your pet’s optimum health.

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