Heartworm Disease Continues to Plague our Pets

Every year, veterinarians brace for a disease that has plagued our pets for decades. Yet this disease is easily preventable with affordable and safe medications. Cases of  Heartworms in both dogs and cats continue to increase and the cost to treat (if detected early enough) is far greater that the cost to prevent. So, how can you protect your pet from the deadly consequences of this now common parasite?

Flash back to 150 years ago when a scientist first discovered the heartworm parasite in a dog. Then the parasite evolved and was then detected in our cats 80 years ago. With heartworm prevention available for both cats and dogs you would think that we would see a reduction in the number of cases, yet each year hundreds of thousands of dogs and cats are diagnosed and often die too soon from this dreaded parasite. Some experts estimate that in North America alone, cases of heartworms in our pets may actually be in the millions.

The disease caused by this heartworm living inside your pet’s heart is devastating. Your pet can be infected by the single bite of  just one mosquito. The worm can then migrate through your pet’s body finally taking up residence in your pet’s heart chamber and the blood vessels leading to the lungs. This results in your pet’s heart having to pump harder to circulate the blood through his tiny body. The effects on the lungs is even more severe with some pet’s gasping for breath as the lungs fill with fluid and tiny blood clots. Early signs include coughing and exercise intolerance that some owners just attribute to the dog being lazy. Oftentimes, signs do not appear until the disease is well advanced and the dog is suffering from heart failure, fluid accumulation in the lungs and belly which can eventually lead to death.

In cats, it only takes one heartworm to cause damage. The early signs are asthma like symptoms and sometimes vomiting that the owners will attribute to hairballs. When that heartworm lodges in the lungs, it can result in a sudden death of the cat.

Treatment for heartworms is expensive ranging from $500 for the smaller dogs, to upwards of $1500 for the larger breeds. Complicated heartworm disease with cardiac failure is even more expensive and oftentimes there is only a 10% chance of recovery in the severely afflicted pets. As of yet, there is no treatment for cat heartworm disease, just supportive care.

Amazingly, veterinarians do have an answer to this problem. Safe, effective heartworm preventatives are available in a variety of easy to use applications. What is even more incredible is that the cost of a lifetime of prevention for most pets is significantly less that a single treatment for the disease. So, why do pets continue to suffer and die from such a preventable disease?

With all internet myths, two radical theories suggest that either the heartworm medications are failing or that the parasites are developing a resistance to the drugs. While conspiracy theorists love these ideas, scientific evidence for either theory is lacking. Heartworm preventives have a failure rate of less than 1 in 1 million doses. Likewise, the complex life cycle of the heartworm does not lend itself to developing a natural resistance to the medications. The truth probably lies in the memory of the owner to administer the dose in a timely fashion and the climate.

Increasing temperatures in our climate has resulted in a longer mosquito season and a larger potential for transmission to our pets. Here in Houston, our mosquito season is all year round. We are now seeing more mosquitoes in previously mosquito-free areas. Irrigation of dry areas and increased plantings of trees in certain areas can actually increase mosquito population. With a larger number of mosquitoes, there is a greater chance of transmission of heartworm disease.

Once all the facts are reviewed, the simplest reason for our failure to control this deadly parasite falls on the humans themselves. We simply do not give the preventive as we should. It may be due to forgetfulness, or perhaps one spouse thought the other one gave it or it may be due to the economy and the financial constraints imposed on the family. Whatever the reason may be, it can result in dire consequences for the health of our pets.

Thankfully, as pet owners, you do have powerful allies to help combat the war against heartworms. With the help of your veterinarian, you can pick the best heartworm medication for your pet and your budget. Oral medications, such as Heartgard, Sentinel, and Iverhart are available. There are also topical medications such as Advantage-Multi and Revolution that are formulated to also protect your pet from both heartworms and fleas. Proheart 6 is also available as a long lasting injection. The prevention of this disease rests solely on the pet’s owners to make sure the pet receives the prevention before the pet is exposed to the parasite. That means that the prevention must begin in puppy-hood and be given every month, all year long.

Do not waste time searching for “natural” or organic ways to prevent heartworms; they simply do not exist. Many people think they can formulate ivermectin to give to their pets, but improper dilution and storage can lead to overdosing or underdosing. Follow recommendations by your veterinarian and the American Heartworm Society (www.heartwormsociety.org). Your pet is counting on you and prevention is far better and cheaper than the treatment.

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