Background: Heartworm antigen testing is considered sensitive and specific. Currently available tests are reported as detecting a glycoprotein found predominantly in the reproductive tract of the female worm and can reach specificity close to 100%. Main concerns regard sensitivity in the case of light infections, the presence of immature females or cases of all-male infections. Research and development have been aimed at increasing sensitivity. Recently, heat treatment of serum prior to antigen testing has been shown to result in an increase in positive antigen test results, presumably due to disruption of natural antigen-antibody complexes. Cross-reactions in dogs with both natural and experimental infections with Angiostrongylus vasorum and Spirocerca lupi have been reported, but cross-reactions with other helminths have not been extensively studied. In order to evaluate potential cross-reactivity with other canine and feline parasites, two studies were performed. Study 1: Live adults of Dirofilaria immitis, Dirofilaria repens, Toxocara canis, Toxocara cati, Dipylidium caninum, Taenia taeniaeformis and Mesocestoides spp. larvae were washed and incubated in tubes with saline solution. All worms were alive at the time of removal from the saline. Saline solutions containing excretory/secretory antigens were then tested for heartworm with six different, commercially available antigen tests. All results were evaluated blind by three of the authors. Study 2: Sera from dogs with natural infections by A. vasorum or D. repens, living in areas free of heartworm disease, were tested with the same tests before and after heat treatment (103 degrees C for 10 min). Results: Results suggest that antigens detected by currently available tests are not specific for D. immitis. They may give positive results through detection of different parasites' antigens that are normally not released into the bloodstream or released in a low amount and/or bound to antibodies. Tests may even detect antigens released by male D. immitis adult worms. D. repens appears to release more detectable antigens than the other worms studied. Conclusions: Cross-reaction with A. vasorum and D. repens does occur in the field and could potentially occur with other helminths. Heat treatment decreases specificity by enhancing cross-reactivity.
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