The Facts About Heartworm (Dr. Zach Weiner)

It is that time of year again folks.  The sun is making itself known, the flowers are coming into bloom, and the birds are starting to sing.   Yes, spring is every so slowly returning to our neck of the woods.   For many of us this is a time of renewal.  It is a time to make a fresh start and enjoy the outdoors again.

I always look forward to getting outside and enjoying Mother Nature more, as the days get longer and the air gets warmer.  The outdoors man in me loves the thought of hiking at our many parks, fishing by the sea or at a pond, or just lying in a hammock out back and listening to the neighborhood song birds.  So don’t worry readers, I am sure to be out there with you all spring, enjoying the beauty that this great state offers.

Right beside me will be my faithful companion, Frisby.  My dear dog loves to sun herself outside and, even at her advanced age, enjoys the occasional jaunt to the beach or through the woods.  Since she is my best friend, I have made a commitment to keep her as safe as possible.  I know that I have to protect her from the dangers outside while allowing her to enjoy herself.  Yes, the dangers! While dogs in New Jersey are at risk of contracting Heartworm disease all year round, the warmer, wetter weather brings even more mosquitoes which increases the risk of infection.  Therefore, proper protection is even more important this time of year.  Hence, we come to the topic of today’s discussion, Heartworm disease.

I find the best way to discuss this issue is to address questions my clients have posed to me in the past.  As such, this blog will be structured in a question and answer format.

What are Heartworms and how do dogs get them?  Can other animals or people get them?

A Heartworm is a tiny worm that spends most of it lifecycle in dogs’ blood vessels and heart.  These parasites are different than intestinal worms and are spread by contact with mosquitoes.  Dogs can not directly infect you or pass these to other animals.  However, a mosquito that fed on an infected dog can spread the disease to another unprotected dog or cat. By being consistent with your Heartworm preventative (Trifexis, Revolution, Heartgard Plus, etc.) will protect your pet and will actually protect many surrounding dogs by minimizing the parasite’s ability to spread.   A good flea and tick control product with repellent activity, such as Vectra 3D, can help to add extra protection to your pet.  Dogs are the intended hosts for Heartworms but other animals, and rarely even people, have been known to contract Heartworms. So your kitty is not safe without protection either.  In dogs, the worms can cause asthma like reactions, heart disease, embolus of the lungs and even congestive heart failure.  Left untreated, Heartworms are fatal to most infested dogs.  Typically, Heartworms cause asthma like symptoms in cats and people.  Amazingly, there are still many dogs in this area that are not on year round Heartworm prevention. This unprotected population keeps the disease a constant threat to all dogs and cats that may miss a dose or two of their medicine.

 

How do you test for this disease?

The easiest method for determining whether your pet has contracted Heartworm disease is to perform a blood test.  In dogs, we recommend a test called “Accuplex,” It shows if your dog has been exposed to Heartworms and has produced antibodies against them.  It also tests to see if he or she has been exposed to several tick-borne diseases.  This is an important and necessary screening procedure to assure that the medication is continuing to keep your pet safe from the diseases that are prevalent in our area.  In short, it is an essential part of your pet’s preventative care regimen.  We recommend that your dog be routinely tested at his or her yearly physical exam or if there has been a lapse in treatment.

If your pet is showing signs that alert your veterinarian to the possibility that he or she may have contracted Heartworm disease, he or she may recommend some more specific tests in addition to the Accuplex to confirm the presence of the parasite and the extent of the damage that is causing (including directly looking for the worms in blood smears and chest x-rays).

Isn’t there a treatment for this disease?

If caught early enough there are treatment options to address Heartworm disease.  However, the treatment course is neither without risk nor inexpensive.  Additionally, there is frequently no way to reverse damage that has already occurred to the heart and lungs.  The treatment includes injections with a medication that is currently in short supply due to rarity of manufacturers.  The delicate location of these parasites additionally requires post-treatment precautions, including at several MONTHS of strict cage rest.  If these precautions are not followed, life threatening clots can seed the lungs, further complicating an already damaged essential organ.  This is why we strongly recommend prevention with a safe and easy monthly chew treat or pill. By regularly using preventative you will never know how many times it has protected your furry friend.  As my mother used to say “I’ve never been hit by a car, but that doesn’t mean I don’t look both ways before I cross the street.”  Prevention is always better than having to put your pal through the effects of the disease and the treatment.

So what can I do about this problem?

The best news about all of this is that prevention of Heartworm is very easy.  Your pet does not need advanced treatments or even messy baths or dips.  He or she does not need to take a daily pill to keep these worms at bay.  All that is needed is medicine given once-a-month which is safer for them than taking an aspirin is for you and me.   The preventative is not toxic to warm-blooded animals and does not have bad side effects. Currently, there are several products available which are both safe and effective in preventing the Heartworms from infesting your furry friend.  For dogs, we now recommend a product called “Trifexis” due to the fact that it prevents not only Heartworm, but also fleas and intestinal parasites.  For cats, “Revolution” is our product of choice. We also dispense Heartgard Plus for prevention of Heartworms in dogs and cats. Remember, the best way to treat Heartworm disease is to never get it.  Regular use of a veterinary approved preventative is the best way to achieve this.

I’m not sure I can afford preventative.

Ok, so this is not a question, but something that comes up in these difficult times.  I would argue that you cannot afford NOT to use preventatives.  At our hospitals, we try to make Heartworm prevention as affordable as possible. When used correctly it is guaranteed to prevent infestation.  However, if not used and you pet contracts Heartworm disease, the cost of treatment, the emotional toll and the risk to your dog would pay for several lifetimes of prevention.  When you add in the fact that the major Heartworm preventatives also eliminate intestinal parasites that can spread to people, you are getting a great deal of value in a small package.  Certainly, your pooch or kitty will appreciate the safety to run outside free of risk over a new collar, toy or bed.  For that much cost you can truly show your pet how much you love him or her.

Ok, now go enjoy the good weather.  If you’d like to review more information please review the American Heartworm society’s website

http://www.heartwormsociety.org/pet-owner-resources/faqs.html

Zachary Weiner DVM

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