Medical Monday: Heartworm Disease
By: Dr. Amanda Landis-Hanna
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As we head into April, I look forward to cherry blossoms. I DO NOT look forward to mosquitos. Not only are they an annoyance, but they also carry the microfilariae (babies) of heartworms. As the weather gets warmer, mosquitos are more prevalent, as is heartworm disease. For this reason, April is Heartworm Disease Awareness month. According to the American Heartworm Society, heartworm disease has been diagnosed in all 50 states, which means your dog is potentially at risk.
As a veterinarian, my job is to prevent and treat disease, so I firmly believe in heartworm prevention. The data is astounding. According to the American Heartworm Society, heartworms have been found in all 50 states, which means your dog is at risk.
So what is heartworm disease? And who is at risk? Heartworms are tiny worms that live in dogs and canids in the wild. They can affect dogs of all ages, breeds, or genders. They live in the heart and lungs, causing high blood pressure and blocking blood vessels. They can block vessels, resulting in death (not unlike a heart attack). In short, they are bad news. Luckily there are safe preventions readily available.
Preventions are most commonly given as a chewable tablet once a month. Most chewables are flavored so many dogs enjoy them as a treat. I start dogs on prevention at a young age (6-8 weeks), and I continue prevention year round, lifelong. Many heartworm preventions also offer intestinal parasite prevention, such as protection against roundworms and hookworms. These two parasites are also contagious to humans (especially children), so year round prevention against heartworms can help protect against multiple problems.
Even in areas and seasons where mosquitos are rare, veterinarians usually recommend year round heartworm prevention. One mosquito bite can transmit this potentially deadly disease. Prevention is generally well tolerated, and is much less expensive than treatment for heartworms.
Many clients ask about natural preventatives for heartworm disease. While natural preventions are desirable, they are not effective when challenged with an infected mosquito. In fact, some “natural” preventatives, such as garlic, can cause toxicity. Instead, FDA-approved heartworm preventions are available with a veterinary prescription. The FDA tests deworming medications for safety and efficacy, which are the active ingredients in heartworm preventions.
Many people have difficulty remembering to give heartworm medication monthly. A few solutions to consider:
- Use your Voyce reminders to send yourself a message to give heartworm prevention on schedule.
- Talk with your veterinarian about shipping you your heartworm prevention once a month. You may be more likely to give the pill when it comes in the mail.
- Give your heartworm prevention on an easy to remember day, such as the first of the month, or when you pay your monthly bills.
- Discuss all forms of heartworm prevention with your veterinarian. Long lasting injectable preventions are also available.
Treatment for heartworm disease is available. Dogs are tested for heartworms annually, to ensure disease is not present. Although very rare, ‘breakthrough’ disease (when a dog on heartworm prevention gets heartworm disease) is a concern. If your dog were to contract this potentially deadly disease, she would be evaluated for heart function, to determine the best course of treatment. She would likely need to be hospitalized for a series of injections, followed by prolonged rest. The Voyce band is helpful in these cases, as it can help pet parents and veterinarians ensure that the heartworm patient is resting appropriately. Heartworm treatment is very difficult for a dog’s body, so rest allows her the best chance for successful treatment and minimal complications. Heartworms are deadly if not treated, and heartworm disease can cause a poor quality of life as she slowly develops heart failure over time. For this reason, it is vital to treat heartworm disease if you are looking for a long time cure.
The website, PetsandParasites.org, estimates 300,000 new cases of heartworm disease every year. Heartworm prevention is almost 100% effective at preventing heartworm disease, and is much less expensive than heartworm treatment. So as we head into spring, protect her heart…since she gives you so much of her love.
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