by Kari Bridges
Last year, Sabrina Fowler took her dog, Pepper, a 3-year-old Red Heeler, for a wellness exam. That afternoon she walked out of the building feeling shocked and in disbelief that Pepper had tested positive for heartworm disease.
Fowler and her husband, Glen, had recently taken Pepper into their home and did not have Pepper’s medical records. They believed Pepper had been receiving a heartworm preventative, but not consistently. Together, their journey to wellness was filled with quiet days, veterinarian appointments and hospitalization as they were forced to watch Pepper endure a complicated and expensive individualized treatment involving painful injections of an arsenical drug to kill the adult worms.
According to the American Heartworm Society (AHS), heartworm disease is difficult to recognize in the early stages of the disease and can take six months from the time the dog was infected until more clinical signs may be detected. Signs and symptoms of the disease vary depending on the number of heartworms present and the duration of infection. Symptoms for both dogs and cats include: fatigue; occasional mild and persistent cough; reluctance to move or exercise; reduced appetite and weight loss. Though Pepper did not show specific signs, she tired easily and had less endurance for running and playing.
The physical and emotional devastation heartworm disease can cause for both the pet undergoing individualized treatments and family members, who are by their pet’s side, are stressful and challenging. Fowler explains that keeping Pepper consistently calm and quiet for six months, adapting to a kennel environment, isolating hospitalization treatments and monitoring and seeing Pepper in pain were the most difficult aspects of the treatment.
“Pepper is a really smart dog and we believe that she knew something was going on and that there was a reason for her having to go into the kennel. It was hard not to be able to take her out and enjoy time playing together. Dogs are like children, if you don’t keep them active during the day, they keep you up all night,” she adds.
Dr. Courtney H. Bridgeman has been extensively treating dogs at the San Antonio Humane Society for the past four years and says that about 50 percent of all dogs presented to the facility for intake test positive for Heartworm disease. Heartworm disease is both a national and worldwide clinical problem and can affect any pet regardless of the age, breed, indoor/outdoor environment or location they live in, says Bridgeman.
This serious and potentially fatal disease begins its life cycle when a female mosquitoes transmits immature parasitic worms into the tissue of an animal. Once in the bloodstream, the worms mature into adult heartworms, interfering with the normal blood flow from the right side of the heart infecting the arteries of the lungs. Adult heartworms then reproduce perpetuating the cycle producing more worms in the heart. If left untreated they reduce the quality of the dog’s life causing congestive heart failure, organ damage and death.
Whether you own a dog, cat or ferret it is important to be aware that cases of heartworm disease have been reported by clinics across Texas and represent a serious health risk to your family pet.
“In general canines are the only animals treated for heartworm disease. This part of the country has a high prevalence for heartworm disease because mild winters don’t kill off the mosquitoes,” says Bridgeman.
Currently, there are no products in the United States approved for the treatment of heartworm infection in cats. Heartworms affect cats differently than dogs but the disease is equally as serious. Cats have proven to be more resistant hosts to heartworm than dogs, often appearing to rid themselves of infection spontaneously.
“Prevention is very important for inside cats. Cats can carry heartworms with some difficulty but there is often no visibility of disease until they die,” adds Bridgeman.
The good news is that most dogs can be treated successfully for heartworm disease and it is completely preventable. Testing for heartworm infection is conducted with a blood test offering accurate test results within minutes. Heartworm prevention is far safer, easy and inexpensive then treatment, that can cost up to 4-5 times the cost of a year’s supply of prevention.
Only a veterinarian prescribes heartworm prevention and the correct dosage is based on a dog’s body weight. The AHS recommends that pet owners discuss with their veterinarian how to best protect their pets from this disease. Research suggests that heartworm disease could be virtually eradicated using available preventives. There are three effective options for preventing heartworm infection, including an oil-on-skin preventative, chewable tablets and injections taken every 6 months.
“A person should never dose a heartworm prevention medication by themselves or use a livestock medication on their dogs. Overdosing is easier than you think plus some breeds of dogs are more sensitive to the main ingredient which causes more drastic issues,” says Bridgeman.
Today, Fowler remembers the day Pepper was clinically cleared of heartworm disease as one filled with relief and joy.
Kari Bridges is a freelance writer based in Schertz and is the mother of two.