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2009-05-27 / Columnists

Pets, Pets, Pets

by Joanne Anderson

Please don't use the economy as an excuse to skip heartworm prevention. Our pets depend on us to protect them even when times are tough. In some respects monthly heartworm pills are as essential as proper nutrition, exercise, and love. Prevention is easier and cheaper than heartworm treatment. (For cats there is no cure.) Heartworm pills do more than save money; they save pets' lives.

Mosquitoes don't know we are in a recession. They're not cutting back. The female buggers are out there, full force, spreading heartworm, a deadly parasitic cardiovascular disease. According to the most recent survey (2007) by the American Heartworm Society, the number of cases continues to climb in certain parts of the US, especially the Gulf and East coasts. These levels are higher than the reported 250,000 dogs and cats that tested positive in 2004, which was also up from 2001.

The disease isn't new. In the US the first report of heartworm in dogs was published in 1847; in cats in 1922. Despite improved diagnosis, preventives, and awareness, heartworm is still found worldwide. Several years ago vets noticed that cat cases in the US parallel dog cases but in smaller numbers.

Heartworm transmission is tricky. Without going into the whole life cycle which would fill this column, understand that baby heartworm (larvae called microfilariae) do not grow up in the same dog where they originate. If they did, the dog would quickly die, and so would the heartworm. Mother Nature is more sinister, using the mosquito as the intermediary host to suck blood from infected dogs, to mature the larvae ingested within its pesky body, and then to bite more unprotected dogs, cats and even ferrets.

Heartworm may be more prevalent for a variety of reasons including: more testing, better testing, climate change- hence, more mosquitoes, a larger population of unprotected pets, and finally, more infected animals for mosquitoes to feed off to spread the disease- something I call the "Katrina factor". After the hurricane at least 45% of the displaced dogs were already heartworm positive (because of location and poverty) before being transported to states where there were fewer cases. Their presence, if left untreated, became a potential source of infection in new places.

Back in 1998 a Gallup poll showed that about 66% of owned dogs got the monthly preventive. By 2004 the figure was down to 59%. My (unproven) suspicion is that the percentage may drop even lower because of current hard times. Understandably vet care is not a priority when you're unemployed or your house is in foreclosure.

However, heartworm is a silent killer. Adult heartworms grow from 6-14 inches long clogging the pets' heart and lungs. Serious damage can occur to these organs plus the liver and kidneys before any outward symptoms. By the time the pet shows signs of coughing, listlessness, fainting or weight loss the disease may be very advanced. Years ago these animals may have died suddenly without anyone suspecting heartworm.

Until recently some cats that succumbed to heartworm were misdiagnosed with other conditions like feline asthma. Actually heartworm presents itself differently in cats, primarily as a pulmonary problem that can cause serious issues at every stage of the parasitic cycle. Talk to your vet about how necessary heartworm prophylactic is for your cats. Presently preventives are available but there is no treatment for an infected cat.

Vets now recommend that pets be on preventive year round, and that they still be blood tested annually. Why re-test? The pills prevent microfilariae from maturing but mosquito season is longer. Owners aren't completely diligent or prompt about administering meds. Pets can secretly spit out pills. Despite screens, mosquitoes find their way into our homes. In one N. Carolina study 28% of all positive cats were indoor pets.

Not convinced? Here are 2 more reasons why with heartworm, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure:

1) Proactive prevention is simple, safe and cost effective. Monthly pills protect pets from other internal parasites too. Pills average about a $100 a year per pet. (Compare that to $1000-1500 for complex heartworm treatment along with diagnostic tools like x-rays.) Once your pet tests negative, you need not purchase the pills from your vet. Many doctors will write a prescription so you can shop at catalog or online sources.

2) Heartworm treatment can kill a weak or old dog. Presently Last Hope Animal Rescue has a middle aged Border Collie mix with an advanced case. He is so weak and anemic that our vets have to build him up before he can possibly withstand the injections of immiticide, an arsenic derivative. After treatment when the adult worms are dissolving, fatal complications like pulmonary embolisms can occur. There is no guarantee that he will survive.

Everyone's financial situation differs, but simply passing on a daily dose or two of Starbucks, or better yet, Marlboros, will save enough money so your pooch gets a month's protection from Interceptor or Heartgard. Fido will love you longer for your small sacrifice.

FOR ADOPTION at Babylon Town Shelter (643- 9270) Lamar St. W. Babylon: On May 28 "Hallie" the friendly Pit Bull in Cage 38 is marking her 1 year anniversary at the shelter. She's been so patient and deserves a home of her own. Meanwhile this tiny kitten is reminding everyone that it's after Memorial Day and therefore fashionably permissible to wear white shoes, just like hers. She will be ready for adoption when she reaches the 2 pound mark so she can be spayed first.

Females: "Tyra"- Rottie mix Cage 42; "Princess Isabella"- comical Terrier Cage 40; "Katie" & "Doubles"- lovely cats in the lobby.

Males: tan Akita Cage 1; "Snoopy"-mature Beagle Cage 13; "Rocky"-gray Pit mix Cage 12.

REMINDER: Last Hope Dog Walk & Low Cost Microchip Clinic- this Sat. May 30 from 1 to 5 pm at Wantagh Park. With the help of Hempstead Shelter, Last Hope is offering Bayer resQ™ microchips for dogs and cats at $25 each, including lifetime registration. No appointment needed. Call 631-661-6164.

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