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2017-06-14 / Columnists

Pets, Pets, Pets

With mosquitoes buzzing again, it’s time for your annual reminder about how insidious heartworm disease is in dogs, and how prevention is worth its weight in gold. This parasite has a complex life cycle so rather than being too technical, this “Pets” will borrow a Question & Answer approach from Pets WebMD. Here goes:

Q: How do dogs get heartworms?

A: Only by the bite of an infected mosquito. No other way. And there’s no way to tell if a mosquito is infected. That’s why prevention is so important.

Heartworm disease has been reported in all 50 states. The bite of just one mosquito infected with the heartworm larvae will give your dog heartworm disease which is now found in areas where veterinarians used to say “Oh, we don’t have heartworm disease.” Places like Oregon, California, Arizona and other desert areas because irrigation is now is allowing mosquitoes to survive.


Cassidy is a Hound mix at Last Hope currently being treated for heartworm. Cassidy is a Hound mix at Last Hope currently being treated for heartworm. In 2008 when my Edgar Afghan Poe and his 66 Afghan siblings were seized from a New Mexico hoarder, we tested the dogs Afghan Hound Rescue sent to NY for heartworm but we knew it was the least of our worries.

Once a dog is bitten by an infected mosquito, it takes six to seven months for the larvae to mature into adult heartworms. They lodge in the heart, lungs and surrounding blood vessels and begin reproducing. Adult worms can grow up to 12 inches in length and can live five to seven years. A dog can have as many as 250 worms in its system.

Q: Is it okay to adopt a dog with heartworms?

A: Heartworm is a common problem in animal shelters today, and municipal shelters rarely have the money to treat heartworm disease. (However, Babylon Shelter often does treat.) It’s perfectly acceptable to adopt a dog with heartworms. Certain private rescues like Last Hope set up the protocol and pay for the treatment. Interested adopters sign up for months of foster care. Their adoption isn’tfinalized until after heartworm treatment, the recovery period and the dog spay/neutered. Six months later the dog is retested to make sure he is negative for the disease. Presently Last Hope is treating four young dogs for heartworm like Cassidy pictured here.

If you adopt a heartworm positive dog without a rescue group financing treatment, you have to vet the dog appropriately.The dog also has to be kept calm after injections because disintegrating heartworm can cause pulmonary embolisms. Heartworm is a horrible disease that leads to death, if left untreated.

Q: How can I prevent my dogs from getting heartworms?

A: For less than the cost of Starbucks or Dunkin’ for weekly coffee, you can prevent heartworm disease in your dog. There are monthly pills, monthly topicals (put on the skin) and a six-month injectable product. Internal damage done to the dog and the cost of treatment are much more expensive monetarily, physically and emotionally than heartworm prevention. Preventative med prices depend on a dog’s weight.

Q: What are the symptoms of heartworm infestations in dogs?

A: Atfirst, there are no symptoms. As more worms crowd the heart and lungs, most dogs develop a cough. As the infestation progresses, the dogs won’t be able to exercise as much; they’ll become winded easier. With dogs suffering from severe heartworm disease, vets hear abnormal lung sounds. Dogs can pass out from the loss of blood to the brain and they can retain fluids. Eventually, most dogs will die when not treated.

Q: If my dog has heartworms, what’s the treatment? How much will it cost?

A: Vets treat with immiticide- an injectable, arsenic-based product.The dog is given three injections at specific intervals that kill the adult heartworms in the blood vessels of the heart.

The safest treatment plan includes a diagnostic workup, including X-rays, blood work and any other tests needed to establish how serious the infection is. Current protocol includes a month of doxycycline pre-treatment. Then the dog is given the injections with a month between first, and then second and third a day apart.The total price tag without the discount rescues can receive can be over $1,000. In certain parts of the country where heartworm is more prevalent, the treatment may cost $300 but that price is often not the complete, recommended American Heartworm Society method.

Q: If my dog is diagnosed with heartworms, can I just give him his monthly preventative instead of having him go through treatment? Won’t this kill the heartworms?

A: Studies have shown if you use ivermectin, a common preventative, on a monthly basis in a heartworm-positive dog, after about two years you’ll kill off most of the dog’s young heartworms. However, in the meantime, remaining heartworms are doing permanent damage to the heart and lungs. There is also a similar “slow kill” method with doxycycline. Vets have used this with dogs too old or ill to withstand immiticide injections.

Q: Can I skip giving my dog his preventative during colder months, when there aren’t any mosquitoes?

A:The American Heartworm Society recommends year-round heartworm prevention because of global warming. Besides, people forget to give their dogs monthly pills. If you use it year-round, and miss a month, your dog will probably still be protected. But if you miss more than a month or two your dog could become infected. Also, many preventatives include an intestinal parasite control for roundworms, whipworms, or tapeworms.

Q: If my dog gets heartworms, and is treated for them, can he get them again?

A: Yes, he can get them again. That’s why prevention is so important.

For Adoption at Babylon Animal Shelter (631-643- 9270) Lamar St. W. Babylon: “Nino” 17-305 lost his home when his owner lost his. Nino is a handsome, chocolate Lab/Pit mix with yellow-green eyes, a year and a half old. He’s good with female dogs, and knows his basic commands. “Jack” 17-275 is a playful pup with Dalmatian spots decorating his ears and nose.

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