Canine Heartworm Disease: Complications And Specific Syndromes

By | 2013-06-11

Asymptomatic Heartworm Infection

Most dogs with heartworm infection are asymptomatic, even though many of these have heartworm disease (radiographic and pathologic lesions). Treatment is as described previously, using melarsomine in the split-dose regimen, along with a macrolide preventative.

Asymptomatic dogs may, however, become symptomatic af’er adulticidal therapy due to postadulticidal thromboembolization and lung injury (as “described elsewhere). The risk of postadulticidal thromboembolization can be imperfectly predicted by semiquantitation of the worm burden, using certain antigen tests, and by the severity of radiographic lesions. Clearly a dog with severe radiographic lesions will not tolerate thromboembolic complications well, but not all dogs with radiographic signs have heavy worm burdens. For example, a dog with moderate to severe radiographic lesions and high antigenemia may not be at high risk for postadulticidal PTE, because it is quite possible that the worms have died, explaining both the antigenemia (release from dead worms) and radio-graphic abnormalities (chronic HWD).This conclusion might also be valid in the dogs with severe radiographic lesions and negative or low antigenemia (assumes most or all worms have died, and antigen has been cleared). Alternatively, antigenic evidence of a heavy worm burden in a dog with minimal radiographic signs might still portend a severe reaction after melarsomine, because the findings suggest large worm numbers but without natural worm attrition (i.e., a relatively young infection with minimal disease). Of course, low worm burden and minimal radiographic lesions would suggest the least risk of an adverse reaction to adulticide.

It bears emphasis that with each scenario, guesswork is involved and precautions should be taken. When the risk is greatest, aspirin (5 to 7 mg/kg daily — begun 3 weeks prior to and continued until 3 weeks after adulticide) or even heparin may be used, and cage confinement is most important. The owners should be educated as to the risk, the suggestive signs, and the importance of prompt veterinary assistance in case of an adverse reaction.


The majority of dogs suffering from chronic HWI have glomerulonephritis, which can be severe. Therefore when a dog demonstrates glomerular disease, heartworm infection should be considered as a differential diagnosis. Although it is generally felt that the glomerular lesions produced by heartworm infection are unlikely to produce renal failure, a therapeutic dilemma results when one is found in a dog with proteinuria, azotemia, and HWI. Logic suggests that adulticidal therapy is indicated because heartworm infection contributes to glomerular disease, but it likewise carries risks. The approach embraced by this author is to hospitalize the patient and to administer intravenous fluids (lactated Ringer’s solution at 2 to 3 mL/kg/hr) for 48 hours (beginning 12 hours prior to the first melarsomine dose). The patient is then released, and a recheck appointment for blood urea nitrogen (BUN) and creatinine determination after 48 hours is advised. The second and third injections are tentatively scheduled for 1 to 3 months, with the treatment decision based on renal function and the overall response to initial adulticidal therapy.

Allergic Pneumonitis

Allergic pneumonitis, which is reported to affect 14% of dogs with HWD, is a relatively early development in the disease course. In fact, the pathogenesis probably involves immunologic reaction to dying microfilariae in the pulmonary capillaries. Clinical signs include cough and sometimes dyspnea and other typical signs of HWD, such as weight loss and exercise intolerance. Specific physical examination findings may be absent or may include dyspnea and audible crackles in more severe cases. Radiographic findings include those typical of heartworm disease but with an infiltrate, usually interstitial, but occasionally with an alveolar component, often worse in the caudal lung lobes. Eosinophils and basophils may be found in excess in peripheral blood and in airway samples. Corticosteroid therapy (prednisone or prednisolone at 1 to 2 mg/kg per day) results in rapid attenuation of clinical signs, with radiographic clearing in less than a week. The dose can then be stopped in 3 to 5 days if clinical signs subside. Although microfilaricidal therapy is typically not indicated because infections are often occult, macrolide prophylaxis is indicated to avoid further infection. Adulticidal therapy can be used after clinical improvement.

Eosinophilic Granulomatosis

A more serious, but rare, manifestation, pulmonary eosinophilic granulomatosis, responds less favorably. This syndrome is characterized by a more organized, nodular inflammatory process, associated with bronchial lymphadenopathy and, occasionally, pleural effusion. With pulmonary granulomatosis, cough, wheezes, and pulmonary crackles are often audible; when very severe, lung sounds may be muffled and associated with dyspnea and cyanosis. Treatment with prednisone at twice the dose for allergic pneumonitis is reported to induce partial or complete remission in 1 to 2 weeks. The prognosis remains guarded because recurrence within several weeks is common. Prednisone may be combined with cyclophosphamide or azathioprine in an effort to heighten the immunosuppressive effect. The latter combination appears to be the most effective Adulticide therapy should be delayed until remission is attained. As the prognosis for medical success is guarded; surgical excision of lobar lesions has been advocated.

Pulmonary Embolization

Spontaneous thrombosis or postadulticidal thromboembolization associated with dead and dying worms — the most important heartworm complication — may precipitate or worsen clinical signs, producing or aggravating PHT, right heart failure or, in rare instances, hemoptysis and pulmonary infarction. Acute fatalities may result from fulminant respiratory failure, exsanguination, DIC, or may be unexplained and sudden (arrhythmia or massive pulmonary embolism). The most common presentation, however, is a sudden onset of lethargy, anorexia, and cough 7 to 10 days after adulticidal therapy — often after failure to restrict exercise. Dyspnea, fever, mucous membrane pallor, and adventitial lung sounds (crackles) may be noted on physical examination. Thoracic radiographs reveal significant pulmonary infiltrates, most severe in the caudal lung lobes.

The degree of worsening, as compared with pretreatment radiographs, is typically dramatic. The infiltrate, typically alveolar, is most severe in the caudal lobes, and occasionally areas of consolidation are noted. Laboratory abnormalities vary with the severity of signs but may include leukocytosis, left shift, monocytosis, eosinophilia, and thrombocytopenia. The degree thrombocytopenia may provide prognostic information.

Medical management of thromboembolic lung disease is largely empiric and somewhat controversial. It is generally agreed that strict cage confinement, oxygen administration via oxygen cage or nasal insufflation (50 to 100 mL/kg), and prednisone (1 mg/kg/day for 3 to 7 days) are indicated in the most severe cases. KMW Some advocate careful fluid therapy (see recommendations for CS), measuring CVP to avoid precipitation of heart failure, to maximize tissue perfusion and combat dehydration. The use of heparin (75 IU/kg subcutaneously three times a day until platelet count has normalized [5 to 7 days]) and aspirin (5 to 7 mg/kg/day) has been advocated y some but remains controversial.

Other therapeutic strategies might include cough suppressants, antibiotics (if fever is unresponsive), and, although speculative at this time, vasodilators (amlodipine, hydralazine, diltiazem). If vasodilatory therapy is used, one must monitor blood pressure because hypotension is a potential side effect. Clinical improvement may be rapid and release from the hospital considered after several days’ treatment. For less severely affected dogs, careful confinement and prednisone at home are often adequate.

Congestive Heart Failure

Right heart failure results from increased right ventricular afterload (secondary to chronic pulmonary arterial disease and thromboemboli with resultant PHT). When severe and chronic, pulmonary hypertension may be complicated by secondary tricuspid regur-gitation and right heart failure. Congestive signs (ascites) are worsened in the face of hypoproteinemia. Calvert suggests that up to 50% of dogs with severe pulmonary vascular complication to heartworm disease will develop heart failure. Clinical signs variably include weight loss, exercise intolerance, ashen mucous membranes with prolonged capillary refill time, ascites, dyspnea, jugular venous distension and pulsation, arrhythmias with pulse deficits, and adventitial lung sounds (crackles and possibly wheezes). Dyspnea may be due to pulmonary infiltrates (PIE or PTE, but not cardiogenic pulmonary edema), abdominal distension, or pleural effusion.

Treatment aims include reduction of signs of congestion, reducing PHT, and increasing cardiac output. This involves dietary, pharmacologic, and procedural interventions. Moderate salt restriction is logical and probably useful in diminishing diuretic needs. This author chooses a diet designed for senior patients or early heart disease, because salt restriction should only be moderate. Diuretics may be useful in preventing recurrence of ascites but are typically not able to mobilize large fluid accumulations effectively. This then requires periodic abdominal or thoracic paracentesis (or both) when discomfort is apparent. Furosemide is typically used at 1 to 4 mg/kg daily, depending on severity and patient response Additional diuretics, which provide a supplemental effect by using differing parts of the nephron, include spironolactone (1 to 2 mg/kg orally twice a day) and chlorothiazide (2 mg/kg orally daily to every other day). The ACE-inhibitors (eg., enalapril, benazepril, lisino-pril, ramipril), by their effect on the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system, may be of use as mixed vasodilators, in blunting pathologic cardiac remodeling, and in reducing fluid retention, particularly cases of refractory ascites. Adulticide therapy is delayed until clinical improvement is noted. No evidence indicates that digoxin improves survival in HWD. Because of the risk of toxicity and pulmonary vasoconstriction associated with its use, it is not routinely used by is author in the management of HWD-induced heart failure However, digoxin may be beneficial in the presence of supraventricular tachycardia or refractory heart failure Aspirin, theoretically useful because of its ability to ameliorate some pulmonary vascular lesions and vasoconstriction, may be used 5 mg/kg/day orally.

The arterial vasodilator, hydralazine, has been shown by Lombard to improve cardiac output in a small number of dogs with heartworm disease and heart failure. It has also been demonstrated to reduce pulmonary artery pressure and vascular resistance right ventricular work, and aortic pressure without changing cardiac output or heart rate in dogs with experimental heartworm disease (but without heart failure). Clinical experience has shown perceived improvement with the vasodilators diltiazem and amlodipine as well. Research and clinical experience suggest that hydralazine, amlodipine, and diltiazem might have a role in this setting, but further studies are necessary to define their role, if any. In heart failure the author uses hydralazine at 0.5 to 2 mg/kg orally twice a day, diltiazem at 0.5 to 1.5 mg/kg orally three times a day, or amlodipine at 0.1 to 0.25 mg/kg/day orally. The risk of hypotension with these therapies must be realized and blood pressure monitored.

Often heart failure follows adulticidal therapy, but if it is present prior to adulticidal therapy, the difficult question arises as when (or whether) to administer melarsomine. If clinical response to heart failure management is good, adulticidal therapy may be offered in 4 to 12 weeks, as conditions allow. Melarsomine is generally avoided if heart failure is refractory. Antiarrhythmic therapy is seldom necessary, although slowing the ventricular response to atrial fibrillation with digoxin, Diltiazem, or both () may be necessary in some cases.

Caval Syndrome

Heartworm CS is a relatively uncommon but severe variant or complication of HWD. Most studies have shown a marked sex predilection, with 75% to 90% of CS dogs being male. It is characterized by heavy worm burden (usually >60, with the majority of the worms residing in the right atrium and venae cavae) and a poor prognosis.

Studies performed in the author’s laboratory indicate that retrograde migration of adult heartworms to the cavae and right atrium, from 5 to 17 months after infection, produces partial inflow obstruction to the right heart and, by interfering with the valve apparatus, tricuspid insufficiency (with resultant systolic murmur, jugular pulse, and CVP increase). Affected dogs also exhibit pre-existent heartworm-induced PHT, which markedly increases the adverse hemodynamic effects of tricuspid regurgitation. These combined effects substantially reduce left ventricular preload and hence cardiac output. Cardiac arrhythmias may further compromise cardiac function.

This constellation of events precipitates a sudden onset of clinical signs, including hemolytic anemia caused by trauma to red blood cells (RBCs) as they pass through a sieve of heart-worms occupying the right atrium and venae cavae, as well as through fibrin strands in capillaries if disseminated intravascular coagulation has developed. Intravascular hemolysis, metabolic acidosis, and diminished hepatic function with impaired removal of circulating pro-coagulants contribute to the development of DIC. The effect of this traumatic insult to the erythron is magnified by increased RBC fragility, due to alterations in the RBC membrane in dogs with HWD. Hemoglobinemia, hemoglobinuria, and hepatic and renal dysfunction also are observed in many dogs. The cause of hepatorenal dysfunction is not clear, but it probably results from the combined effects of passive congestion, diminished perfusion, and the deleterious effects of the products of hemolysis. Without treatment, death frequently ensues within 24 to 72 hours due to cardiogenic shock, complicated by anemia, metabolic acidosis, and DIC.

A sudden onset of anorexia, depression, weakness, and occasionally coughing are accompanied in most dogs by dyspnea and hemoglobinuria. Hemoglobinuria has been considered pathognomonic for this syndrome. Physical examination reveals mucous membrane pallor, prolonged capillary refill time, weak pulses, jugular distension and pulsation, hepatosplenomegaly, and dyspnea. Thoracic auscultation may disclose adventitial lung sounds; a systolic heart murmur of tricuspid insufficiency (87% of cases); loud, split S2 (67%); and cardiac gallop (20%). Other reported findings include ascites (29%), jaundice (19%), and hemoptysis (6%). Body temperature varies from subnormal to mildly elevated.

Hemoglobinemia and microfilaremia are present in 85% of dogs suffering from CS. Moderate (mean PCV, 28%) regenerative anemia characterized by the presence of reticulocytes, nucleated RBC, and increased mean corpuscular volume (MCV) is seen in the majority of cases. This normochromic, macrocytic anemia has been associated with the presence of target cells, schistocytes, spur cells, and spherocytes. Leukocytosis (mean white blood cell (WBC] count, approximately 20,000 cells/cm) with neutrophilia, eosinophilia, and left shift has been described. Dogs affected with disseminated intravascular coagulation are characterized by the presence of thrombocytopenia and hypofibrinoginemia, as well as prolonged one stage prothrombin time (PT), partial thromboplastin time (PTT), activated coagulation time (ACT), and high fibrin degradation product concentrations. Serum chemistry analysis reveals increases in liver enzymes, bilirubin, and indices of renal function. Urine analysis reveals high bilirubin and protein concentrations in 50% of cases and more frequently, hemoglobinuria.

CVP is high in 80% to 90% of cases (mean, 11.4 cm H20). Electrocardiographic abnormalities include sinus tachycardia in 33% of cases and atrial and ventricular premature complexes in 28% and 6%, respectively. The mean electrical axis tends to rotate rightward (mean, +129 degrees), with an S1,2,3 pattern evident in 38% of cases. The S wave depth in CV6LU (V<) is the most reliable indicator of right ventricular enlargement (>0.8 mv) in 56% of cases. Thoracic radiography reveals signs of severe heartworm disease with cardiomegaly, main pulmonary arterial enlargement, increased pulmonary vascularity, and pulmonary arterial tortuousity recognized in descending order of frequency (). Massive worm inhabitation of the right atrium with movement into the right ventricle during diastole is evident echocardiographically. This finding on M-mode and two-dimensional echocardiograms is nearly pathognomonic for CS in the appropriate clinical setting. The right ventricular lumen is enlarged and the left diminished in size, suggesting pulmonary hypertension accompanied by reduced left ventricular loading. Paradoxical septal motion, caused by high right ventricular pressure, is commonly observed. No echocardiographic evidence of left ventricular dysfunction exists. Cardiac catheterization documents pulmonary, right atrial, and right ventricular hypertension and reduced cardiac output.

Prognosis is poor unless the cause of the crisis — the right atrial and caval heartworms — is removed. Even with this treatment, mortality can approximate 40%.

Fluid therapy is needed to improve cardiac output and tissue perfusion, to prevent or help to reverse DIC, to prevent hemoglobin nephropathy, and to aid in the correction of metabolic acidosis. Overexuberant fluid therapy, however, may worsen or precipitate signs of congestive heart failure. In the author’s clinic, a left jugular catheter is placed and intravenous fluid therapy instituted with 5% dextrose in water or one-half strength saline and 2.5% dextrose. The catheter should not enter the anterior vena cava because it will interfere with worm embolectomy. A cephalic catheter may be substituted for the somewhat inconvenient jugular catheter, but this does not allow monitoring of CVP. The intravenous infusion rate for fluids is dependent on the condition of the animal. A useful guideline is to infuse as rapidly as possible (up to 1 cardiovascular volume during the first hour) without raising the CVP or without raising it above 10 cm H20 if it was normal or near normal at the outset. Initial therapy should be aggressive (10 to 20 mL/kg/hr for the first hour) if shock is accompanied by a normal CVP (<5 cm HzO), and it should be curtailed to approximately 1 to 2 mL/kg/hr if CVP is 10 to 20 cm HzO. Whole blood transfusion is not indicated in most cases because anemia usually is not severe, and transfused coagulation factors may worsen DIG Sodium bicarbonate is not indicated unless metabolic acidosis is severe (pH, 7.15 to 7.20). Broad-spectrum antibiotics and aspirin (5 mg/kg daily) should be administered. Treatment for disseminated intravascular coagulation is described elsewhere in this text.

The technique for surgical removal of caval and atria] heartworms was developed by Jackson and colleagues. This procedure should be undertaken as early in the course of therapy as is practical. Often, sedation is unnecessary, and the procedure can be accomplished with only local anesthesia. The dog is restrained in left lateral recumbency after surgical clipping and preparation. The jugular vein is isolated distally. A ligature is placed loosely around the cranial aspect of the vein until it is incised, after which the ligature is tied. Alligator forceps (20 to 40 cm, preferably of small diameter) are guided gently down the vein while being held loosely between the thumb and forefinger. The jugular vein can be temporarily occluded with umbilical tape. If difficulty is encountered in passage of the forceps, gentle manipulation of the dog by assistants to further extend the neck will assist in passage of the forceps past the thoracic inlet; medial direction of the forceps may be necessary at the base of the heart. Once the forceps have been placed, the jaws are opened, the forceps are advanced slightly, the jaws are closed, and the worms are removed. One to four worms are usually removed with each pass. This process is repeated until five to six successive attempts are unsuccessful. An effort should be made to remove 35 to 50 worms. Care should be taken not to fracture heartworm during extraction. After worm removal, the jugular vein is ligated distally, and subcutaneous and skin sutures are placed routinely. Other catheters, such as urethral stone basket catheters, horsehair brushes, snares and flexible alligator forceps have also been used. Fluoroscopic guidance, when available, is useful in this procedure.

Successful worm retrieval is associated with a reduction in the intensity of the cardiac murmur and jugular pulsations, rapid clearing of hemoglobinemia and hemoglobinuria, and normalization of serum enzymatic aberrations. Immediate and latent improvement in cardiac function occurs over the next 24 hours. It is important to realize that removal of worms does nothing to reduce right ventricular afterload (PHT), and hence fluid therapy must be monitored carefully before and after surgery to avoid precipitation or worsening of right heart failure. Cage rest should be enforced for a period of time suitable for individual care.

Worm embolectomy through a jugular venotomy is frequently successful in stabilizing the animal, allowing adulticide therapy to be instituted to destroy remaining heartworms in a minimum of 1 month. Careful scrutiny of BUN and serum liver enzyme concentrations should precede the latter treatment. Aspirin therapy is continued for 3 to 4 weeks after adulticide therapy. Substantial improvement in anemia should not be expected for 2 to 4 weeks after worm embolectomy. Macrolide preventative therapy, as described previously, is administered at the time of release from the hospital.

Aberrant Migration

Although heartworms in the dog typically inhabit the pulmonary arteries of the caudal lung lobes, they may find their way to the right ventricle, and rarely (see Caval Syndrome) the right atria and venae cavae. Much less frequently, immature L5 may aberrantly migrate to other sites, including the brain, spinal cord, epidural space, anterior chamber of the eye, the vitreous, the subcutis, and the peritoneal cavity. In addition, the worms may inhabit the systemic circulation, producing systemic thromboembolic disease. Treatment of aberrantly migrating heartworms requires either nothing (e.g., peritoneal cavity), surgical excision of the offending parasite, adulticidal therapy, or symptomatic treatment (e.g., seizure control with brain migration). The method for surgical removal from internal iliac and femoral arteries has been described.