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2018-09-19 / Columnists

Pets, Pets, Pets

Hot and humid Long Island is swarming with mosquitoes. The last two months we’ve had a bumper crop. When these buggers carry heartworm disease, they do not discriminate as they bite our dogs. Every breed—big dogs, small dogs, short-haired 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 we drive a heartworm positive (HW+) shelter dog, now a Last Hope Animal Rescue foster, to the vet to begin the risky and costly treatment with immiticide, an arsenic derivative. Most of these dogs don’t look sick. You would never pick them out of a line up. Only proper blood tests can detect and confirm the presence of heartworm. Babylon Shelter and Last Hope jointly treated “Kirstie,” a Husky, and “Teddy,” a Chow mix. Infected mosquitoes still penetrated their thick coats. Despite their full, long coats we’ve watched mosquitoes land on our Afghans’ long noses especially during walks in the woods.

One million dogs are estimated to be HW+ in the United States each year, but only 30% of them will actually be diagnosed with a heartworm infection by a veterinarian. Research suggests that heartworm disease could be virtually eradicated using available preventives.

HW+ 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.


A mosquito penetrated Teddy’s thick fur and infected him with heartworm. Teddy was treated in 2014. A mosquito penetrated Teddy’s thick fur and infected him with heartworm. Teddy was treated in 2014. 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 keep rising for a variety of reasons including: more testing, better testing, testing at town shelters, climate change—hence, more mosquitoes, new mosquito species, 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 American Heartworm Society estimates only 55% of dogs in the U.S. are currently on a heartworm preventive. Supposedly there are now 89.7 million dogs living in U.S. households. This means 40 million pet dogs are 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, LI municipal shelter dogs weren’t screened for heartworm prior to adoption. In the old days, if adopted shelter dogs tested positive at the new owner’s veterinarian, they often were returned and euthanized because HW treatment is so expensive. Nowadays knowing a town shelter dog is HW+ creates a dilemma. 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 501C3 status for extenuating medical care.

Furthermore, recovery is difficult to monitor at a crowded town shelter. 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 more than $1,000 a dog which is less than the typical owner would pay because of courtesies animal hospitals extend to rescues and because sending shelters help by providing blood panels, chest x-rays, and, at times, the immiticide. It still adds up.

Are you convinced yet? Your dog, even if a pampered, indoor pet 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.

Last Hope Poster Pups for Adoption at 3300 Beltagh Ave, Wantagh: “Rosey” is a smart Red Heeler who loves kids. She used to pull a child on a skate board. “Mango” is a big Beagle at 38 pounds. He has a wonderful temperament. Both dogs were recently at an adoption event at Roosevelt Field. They are HW negative and on monthly preventives at Last Hope. Call 631-671-2588 for more info.

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