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2010-02-17 / Columnists

Pets, Pets, Pets

By Jeanne Anderson

Author’s Note: The following column is nominated in the Newspaper Editorial category in the 2009 Dog Writers Association of America (DWAA) Writing Competition. It first appeared in “Pets” last year on May 28. Even though it is winter, dogs should be on heartworm preventive treatments year round. All dogs are vulnerable to infected mosquitoes, including small, primarily inside dogs. Last Hope and a town shelter have recently helped a stray Dachshund and a Mini Schnauzer who both tested positive for heartworm. Below is the original column:

Some people don’t think their pets “need” heartworm pills. They are dead wrong. Therefore, please don’t use the economy as an excuse to skip heartworm preventive treatments. 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 world-wide. 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 space, 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 percent 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 Gall-up poll showed that about 66 percent of owned dogs got the monthly preventive. By 2004, the figure was down to 59 percent. 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 appear. 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 meds year round, and that they still be blood tested bi-annually. Why re-test? The pills prevent microfilariaefrom maturing but mosquito season is longer. Owners aren’t completely diligent or prompt about administering meds. Pets Pets for Adoption 
Shown, left, “Teddy” ~ Retriever mix on a diet Pets for Adoption Shown, left, “Teddy” ~ Retriever mix on a diet can secretly spit out pills. Why indoor pets? Despite screens, mosquitoes findtheir way into our homes. In one N. Carolina study 28 percent of all positive cats were indoor pets.

Not convinced? Here are two 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 via 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. Aftertreatment 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.

Update 2/10: “Gabe” the B“Ralphie II” ~Rottie/ Shepherd pup “Ralphie II” ~Rottie/ Shepherd pup order Collie mix did weather the heartworm treatment and is now happy in his new home but it was a long, tenuous recovery.

FOR ADOPTION at Babylon Town Shelter (643-9270) Lamar St. W. Babylon: “Ralphie II” in Cage 4 is the spitting image of “Ralphie” a Babylon dog featured here and then adopted a few weeks ago, but he is slightly smaller. This friendly Rottie mix pup about 8 months old has Shepherd coloring.

“Teddy” the robust Retriever mix in Cage 6 is now on an exercise/diet program at the shelter. He would be a great companion for a fitness buff. Female dogs: “Tricia” slim black Shepherd mix Cage 27; “Roxy” brindle beauty Cage 25; “Star” Pit mix Cage 37; “Xena” Neapolitan Mastiff Cage 42 being treated for skin condition, will need follow-up care.

Cats: “Seamus” gorgeous longhaired declaw- ask to see him in maternity; Lobby kittens: “Chamo”- gray & white and “Cali”- classic calico.

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