June 27, 2016

General Medical Issues Wellness & Prevention

The Ugly Truth about Heartworm Disease

by Aili V. Heintz, DVM

Jasper and Brady with namesWhen I was in vet school, I adopted a dog named Brady. He was a brown and black Coonhound mix with the cutest howl you’ve ever heard! Brady was an easy-going dog with a gentle soul.

Brady was a victim of Hurricane Katrina, and he came to me with multiple health issues. I adopted Brady knowing that he had heartworm disease.

Not-so-fun Facts about Heartworm Disease

  • Heartworm is transferred through infected mosquitoes
  • Heartworm causes permanent damage to your dog’s heart and lungs
  • Heartworm is a potentially fatal disease
  • Heartworm is a problem in all 50 states
  • Heartworm treatment takes over 200 days
  • Heartworm is easy to prevent
  • Heartworm costs over $100 per month (approximately $1,300.00) to treat, but it costs approximately $10.00 per month to prevent

The Cost of Heartworm Treatment

heartworm photo

Many people don’t understand the cost involved with heartworm disease for both the owner and the pet. There is a cost to the owner because heartworm treatment can be very expensive, and it takes a long time to complete. There is a cost to the pet because the treatment is painful, and the disease may leave permanent damage to internal organs.

To treat heartworm, we inject Immiticide, an arsenic derivative, deep into the dog’s back muscles. The medicine will kill the worms, causing them to break down and pass into the dog’s bloodstream where they are eventually filtered out by the liver and kidneys.

Heartworms are not like intestinal worms. You won’t actually see anything leaving the dog’s body. This entire process takes approximately 270 days to complete.

The Risks Involved with Heartworm Treatment

It is important to keep your dog quiet for several months until the worms are completely eliminated from his body. This is very hard, because, after the first month, your pet starts to feel better and wants to run around and play. However, increased activity can increase the risks associated with heartworm treatment.

As adult heartworms die, they break apart and pass into the dog’s bloodstream. If the dog stays fairly quiet throughout treatment, the worm fragments can ‘go with the flow’ and pass through the system. However, with strenuous activity, the pet’s blood pressure and blood flow both increase and worm fragments can get lodged in critical spots like the brain.

The Rest of Brady’s Story

Being in vet school, I had access to exceptional veterinary care. We started Brady on heartworm treatment. The hardest part for me was that 1-2 months after his heartworm treatment, Brady started to perk up. He wanted to be more active, and I still had to keep him quiet. Brady wanted to play with my other dog, Jasper, and I couldn’t let him do that.

Unfortunately, even with reduced physical activity, emboli (or a clot of worm fragments) got lodged in Brady’s brain. The best veterinary care available couldn’t stop that from happening.  Even though Brady eventually recovered from heartworm disease, he had seizures for the rest of his life.

My Advice

It only takes one mosquito to give your dog heartworm disease, and yet it is SO easy to prevent. Give your dog a monthly heartworm preventive, and give it at the same time every month.  Keep your pet protected from heartworm disease, and save yourself some money in the process!