Q: Do I have to give my monthly heartworm pill to my dog every month, even in the winter? I haven’t been. It’s so expensive. Also, do I have to test every year for heartworms if I did keep her on it year-round?
A: As an advocate for your pet, my short answer is yes to all questions above. There are many reasons, including that in May, a study came out from the Companion Animal Parasite Council that proves, even more in the Charleston area, that heartworm disease is here in West Virginia and still a growing threat to the lives of our pets.
The CAPC published the Top Ten Cities Heartworm Report this spring. It reflected positive heartworm test results from the last 30 to 45 days. Our very own Charleston came in at an alarmingly high No. 3 in the entire nation.
Now is this because the disease is spreading into our area more from both the south and the north due to warmer winter weather? Or could it be that more people have stopped giving heartworm medicine due to cost and forgetfulness and now their pets are unprotected? Or, could it be that we have always had a high incidence of heartworm positive dogs and they are just now getting reported? As with anything in life, the answer lies somewhere in between.
So what does heartworm disease do to a pet? Well, if undiagnosed, they will go into heart failure and die from those complications. This is because heartworm disease results from mosquitoes injecting a larval life stage into your pet — dogs and cats, mind you — that grows, lives and ultimately reproduces in the chambers of the heart and great blood vessels coming off of the heart. These extra space-occupying critters will cause the heart to fail.
Mosquitoes are everywhere, by the way, both outside and inside our homes. You can’t hide from those pesky insects even if you try.
Now if detected early before the worm burden is too great, then it can be treated effectively and the pets can be saved. It is a prolonged treatment consisting of pre-treating the pet with medicine.
The protocol is: Waiting. Giving medicine that kills the adult worms. Praying they don’t have an anaphylactic reaction to this step. Waiting more. Then giving medicine to kill the baby worms. A little more worrying. Then testing to see how effective things were.
If one worm remains, then here you go again with the whole protocol. It takes months but it does work. Think about this. Isn’t it so much easier to just give the prevention and get on with your life?
Heartworm prevention can be expensive for some people. We all understand that. But with the explosion of internet pet pharmacies and pharmaceutical rebates available seasonally through your veterinarian it is not as bad as you think. Prevention is definitely less expensive than treating heartworm disease.
There are lots of options out there about how you give the medicine too. There are monthly pills and topicals. There are even oral medicines that last for several months between doses for more convenience and compliance.
I was sitting outside with one of the Scottish terriers this morning and noticed several mosquitoes buzzing around him. It reminded me of Pig-Pen from “Peanuts,” actually. And although Chaco is freshly bathed and groomed, the mosquitoes don’t discriminate. They just like to bite. I was glad he was protected.
Testing is important, too. The American Heartworm Society recommends testing every year. There are several reasons. One is to be sure the medicine is working and effective as it is labeled. The second is to be sure our owners are compliant and do give the medicine monthly or as directed. We don’t want to miss one single case, ever.
Most veterinarians use a test called a 4Dx test. It is an antigen test that picks up the presence of the worms in the blood and requires just a few drops of blood. Surprisingly, most dogs tolerate a blood draw better that some vaccinations — less stinging I surmise? It takes just minutes to run in the hospital, and results can be reported to owners before they leave. Pretty slick, huh?
Another benefit of the 4Dx test is that it tests for tick-borne diseases such as Lyme disease, Erlichia and Anaplasma. We are seeing a rise in all of these diseases — again, due wholly to the increase in tick bites and the number of ticks active and causing disease year-round. These diseases are also treatable with oral medicines, but not unless they get detected with that yearly heartworm test.
So homework for July (I have been saying this a lot since school let out, and if there are children in the exam room, they always seem to frown. Maybe I should call it “to-do” for July. I’ll experiment with the teenagers at home and see if changing my phrase will inspire them to do more chores. Anyway ...):
- Give monthly heartworm prevention however it works best for your pet and for you.
- Do research to find the most effective medicine at the best cost that works with your budget.
- Test yearly.
- Enjoy your pets and your family this summer, it all goes by so fast.