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2013-07-17 / Columnists

Pets, Pets, Pets

Hot and humid Long Island is swarming with mosquitoes, including the latest villain- the Asian tiger (a.k.a. Aedes albopictus). When these buggers carry heartworm disease, they do not discriminate as they bite our dogs. Dogs of every breedbig dogs, small dogs, shorthaired ones and hairy pups- are all vulnerable to deadly heartworm infection, unless they are on a timely regimen of the preventive pill.

Some owners don’t think their dogs “need” heartworm pills. They are dead wrong. This fact hits home every time I drive a heartworm positive (HW+) shelter dog, now a Last Hope Animal Rescue foster, to the vet to begin the costly and risky treatment with immiticide, an arsenic derivative. Most of the dogs don’t look sick. You would never pick them out of a lineup. Only proper blood tests can detect and confirm the presence of heartworm. Presently we are treating “Kirstie,” a celebrity look-alike Husky found in Copiague. The mosquito penetrated her thick coat.

Kirstie has heartworm despite her thick Husky coat. Kirstie has heartworm despite her thick Husky coat. The dogs on their way to the vet are the fortunate ones, for they stand a good chance of recovery dependent on how far their heartworm disease has progressed; whereas, undiagnosed HW+ dogs, even owned pets, harbor the invasive parasite while their condition gets worse. Heartworm is a silent killer. Adult heartworms grow from 6-14 inches long clogging the pets’ heart and lungs. (I will spare you the photos. They are beyond gross.) 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.

Heartworm has been reported in all 50 states with a concentration in the East Coast and Gulf area. 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. To make matters worse, it takes five to seven months from the time the dog is bitten by an infected mosquito until a blood test can accurately detect adult worms.

Experts expect the number of heartworm cases to rise for a variety of reasons including: more testing, better testing, testing at town shelters, climate change- hence, more mosquitoes, new relentless species like the voracious Asian tigers, more mosquitoes migrating north, a larger population of unprotected pets due to financial hardship and, finally, more infected animals for mosquitoes to feed off to spread the disease. The ASH estimates that only 55% of dogs in the U.S. are currently on a heartworm preventive, leaving 27 million dogs at risk of acquiring heartworm disease.

Let’s face it. Neglected strays and owner surrenders are more likely to be exposed to heartworm than pampered pets. Until recently municipal shelter dogs on LI weren’t screened for heartworm prior to adoption. In the old days, if dogs tested positive at the new owners’ veterinarian, they were often returned and euthanized because HW treatment is so expensive. Nowadays knowing a town shelter dog is HW+ creates a Catch 22. It shouldn’t be an automatic death sentence, but should treatment be done on the taxpayer’s dime? The question is debatable, though some town shelters treat in house on a case by case basis or establish 501©3 status for extenuating medical care. Furthermore, recovery is difficult to monitor at a crowded town shelter. The dogs in treatment must be kept quiet and observed carefully for weeks after each immiticide injection since they can die from pulmonary embolisms as the heartworms disintegrate.

HW treatment cost to Last Hope, a non-profit relying on donations and grants, averages $1200 a dog which is less than the typical owner would pay because of the courtesies animal hospitals extend to rescues and because sending shelters help by providing blood panels, chest xrays and, at times, the immiticide. It still adds up. Since the start of 2012, Last Hope treated 18 out of 493 dogs for heartworm, and specifically four HW+ dogs since May. We have even set up a designated fund ( ) so we can continue doing so. To add to the problem worldwide, both immiticide and Interceptor (a popular preventive, now gone) were in short supply last year because of patent woes. Rescue groups were scrambling to get the medicine so they could save HW+ dogs already in their care.

“Enter the Dragon.” Let’s turn the HW horror into a Bruce Lee movie. Have you had an encounter with the Asian tiger mosquito yet? If not, walk your dogs at Southards Pond in Babylon, the former Westminster Kennel Club stomping grounds, and you will meet our latest nemesis. They bite my hairy Afghans on their needle noses. This non-indigenous species stowed away in tires from China in the 1980s. They are now in 27 states. The CDC confirms that Asian tigers spread dengue fever, other deadly diseases plus West Nile and canine heartworm.

Are you convinced yet? Your dog, even if “Princess Pomeranian” spends most of her time indoors, should be on heartworm prevention year round. Most pills are monthly. Have your dog tested first if there has been a gap in protection. Ask your vet to recommend the proper product. The pills may seem costly, but that expenditure is nothing compared to the expense and anguish in putting your priceless pup through HW treatment; or worse yet, having your beloved pet succumb to this insidious and preventable disease.

Babylon Town Shelter Adoptables (631- 643-9270) Lamar St. W. Babylon: “Coco” #13- 421 is an adorable Chihuahua whose owner died, while “Ebony” #13-309 the six-year-old black Shepherd is featured here for the third time. She has seen six other Shepherds leave the shelter but she remains because she needs a home without other dogs. Dogs: Yorkie mix #13-422 found at Wyandanch Post Office; “Holly” #13-327- mellow white Pit, did well at off-site adoption event. Kittens: trio of longhaired orange & white brothers.

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