Heartworm disease is not a winter disease, especially here in Nebraska. So I thought this would be a perfect time to discuss it. You can think through your New Year’s Resolution. Your resolution, if I can be so bold as to make it for you, is to never have to deal with heartworm disease in Real Life. Incidentally, that is my resolution also. You, as a pet owner of one or two dogs, have a better chance of reaching this goal than I do as a veterinarian of hundreds of dogs. Still, I am resolved.
Heartworm disease is primarily a disease of canines. If you have a cat or ferret, skim this article and keep it at the back of your mind, as they too are at risk. If you have children, know this could be a relevant article, but only in the sense that this is One More Thing You as a Parent Could Face, But Probably Won’t. If you have no pets or children, think of all the things you could be doing with your precious ten minutes and then go do one of them!
Finally, Dog Owners, listen up. You need to consider heartworm disease now, so that you can keep your New Year’s Resolution to never deal with it in Real Life. I would like you to read this article, take the preventative measures you need to take, then NEVER think about heartworm disease again, except in the very superficial, automatic sense of giving your pup his or her treat once a month and getting a heartworm test once a year. I would also like you to sound a little bit bored when I call you each year to say your pet’s test was negative. Yawn as you answer and say (like you said the year before and will say the next), “Well, yeah, I figured.”
Heartworm disease is caused by a parasite—a big white worm that starts off tiny enough to live in a mosquito. The mosquito bites a dog; the larvae travel to his or her heart and pulmonary vessels, grow into a huge mass of wriggling pasta, and cause considerable damage to the cardiac and respiratory systems, including coughing, lethargy, and often sudden death.
Heartworm disease is treatable, today more so than ever. Long ago, the disease was treated surgically — vets would remove the worms from the pulmonary vessels and heart with a hook. Sort of barbaric, yes, but the 50% or so who survived did well. Then a drug was discovered that was incredibly toxic to the pet, but would kill heartworms, and survival rates went way up. Now, we use a series of two injections of a newer, safer drug. Pets are usually hospitalized for treatment and it is still hard on them, but in the long run, they do great.
So here is how to keep your New Year’s Resolution to never deal with heartworm disease in Real Life. Find out when your dog’s last heartworm test was. If it was not in the past year, get it scheduled. It will take all of 15 minutes to have blood drawn and get a result back. Get out your new calendar, and write, “Give heartworm medication” on April 1. Or better yet, take the cute little heart sticker out of your box of heartworm preventative and put it on the first. Now do that for every month through November. Every time you come to a sticker day, give the preventative. If you do not live in Nebraska, call your veterinarian, ask what he or she does with their own pets, and follow that schedule.
Many vets, as well as the American Heartworm Society, are recommending heartworm prevention year-round for all dogs, no matter what part of the country they live in, because it does exist everywhere, many people travel with their pets and mosquito-killing weather is not always predictable. But as I mentioned, it is a pretty safe bet to ask your vet what he or she does and do that. (See Dad, I was listening when you said “I’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day…”)
For what it’s worth, my two dogs, Ebony and Noodle, get their heartworm prevention monthly April through November and a yearly test. Sometimes I even forget to tell my husband when their tests are negative, but if I do tell him, he sounds a little bit bored, and says, “Well yeah, I figured…”