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Vet Talks Pets: Heartworm Prevention is the Best Medicine

SheilaBy Sheila Fitzpatrick, DVM

This past week, I performed a routine dental cleaning and examination on an eight-year-old yellow Labrador named “Chase.” As Chase’s owner dropped him off to my hospital, she casually said “can you do one of those heartworm tests too?”  My first reaction was, it’s March. We live in a cold climate and we don’t have any mosquitos, but OK, I’ll do one so he can start prevention before the “heartworm season” begins.

The course of events from there was unexpected. Chase tested positive for heartworm disease!

I picked up the phone and called the owner and the first thing she said was “but how can that be? He acts totally normal. We don’t have heartworm disease HERE do we?” She asked us to test him again in the hospital and send a test to an outside laboratory. Again, Chase tested positive.

This case brought to light how diseases we “think” our pets are immune to still exist and we must be proactive with prevention before we put our pets in danger.

So what is heartworm disease?

The heartworm parasite, also known as “Dirofliaria Immitis,” is a parasite transmitted through blood by mosquitoes to dogs and cats. It is most commonly found in geographical areas that have tropical and subtropical climates such as the Atlantic and gulf coasts, however, the parasite has been found in all 50 states, most commonly in areas with mosquitos.

Heartworm is actually a lungworm which eventually makes its way to the heart of the pet. Symptoms include lethargy, exercise intolerance and eventual heart failure, but many pets are asymptomatic early on, with the only sign being an occasional cough.

If your pet is diagnosed with the parasite early, it can be treated and cured with a powerful medication. If caught late, the disease can be deadly and requires more aggressive treatment.

So, get your pets tested! It takes only 10 minutes and your veterinarian can give you preventive medication which usually is given monthly.

What if your pet is positive? Your veterinarian will begin staging the disease with bloodwork and x-rays. From there, you will begin administering medication to take care of the young parasites, then you will schedule injections of stronger medicine to take care of the adult parasites. Your pet must be restricted from exercising during this treatment phase as the risk of an embolism is very high. Don’t worry, you can play with your pet when the treatment is all over!

So, what about Chase? It turns out that Chase had actually traveled to Oklahoma where heartworm is endemic. We began his heartworm treatment immediately.

What Chase reminded me of is that when we are moving around during the spring and summer months, or are off camping at lakes with a lot of mosquitoes, our pets are at risk! So be conscious of your travel plans with your pet, call your vet, and pick up your prescription for heartworm prevention medicine.

Sheila Fitzpatrick, DVM, is a graduate of Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine and owns Mountain Mobile Veterinary Service in Eagle and Vail, CO. She’s a 1983 graduate of Ellicottville Central School and a frequent visitor to Ellicottville to see family. She provides this column as a public service.

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