Treating Heartworm Disease in Dogs
Call him twice lucky. Sam, a 7-year-old yellow Labrador retriever mix, was separated from his owners during Hurricane Katrina’s rampage. With help from the American Red Cross, Evelyn Busby and Bubba Fink retrieved Sam more than 3 weeks later. Sam had lost 10 pounds and suffered a paw wound during his traumatic experience, so a visit to the veterinarian soon followed the happy reunion.
The wound was easily treated, but a diagnosis of heartworm disease meant a new challenge for Sam. Despite losing their home, Busby and Fink ensured that Sam completed his treatment. “Sam is just like a member of our family,” Busby says.
THE KEY TO RECOVERY
Love may have more to do with Sam’s recovery than luck. The key to treating heartworm disease—a potentially fatal condition caused by parasitic worms in the heart—is owners who actively involve themselves in their dog’s recuperation. Indeed, an owner’s dedication to following the veterinarian’s directions on home care and return office visits increases the chance of a favorable outcome. “Heartworm treatment is a commitment over several months, but the results are well worth the effort for the dog and the person who loves him,” says Dr. Lynn Buzhardt, co-owner of The Animal Center in Zachary, Louisiana, and a board member of the American Heartworm Society (AHS).
FORGET THE WHAT-IFS
Although it is not uncommon for pet owners to be upset that their dog was infected with a preventable disease, guilt should not be part of the healing process. “I usually tell clients that having a heartworm-positive dog does not make you a bad pet owner—it just makes you a busy human being,” Dr. Buzhardt says.
Your dog should be screened before treatment to ensure the best treatment protocol. According to the AHS, a diagnosis of canine heartworm disease depends on the following: an accurate patient history, the recognition of clinical signs, and the use of several diagnostic procedures that may include an antigen blood test, x-rays, ultrasounds of the heart, detection and differentiation of microfilariae (the prelarval stage of heartworms), and clinical laboratory tests.
About 95% of canine heartworm disease cases can be successfully treated.
Treatment research is ongoing. “Current treatments are highly effective, but we can always learn more,” says Dr. Tom Nelson, AHS president, owner of Beaumont Veterinary Associates in Beaumont, Texas, and a partner of Animal Medical Centers in Alabama. “We know more about heartworms today than we did 5 years ago, and we will know even more in another 5 years.”
While a diagnosis of heartworm disease can seem frightening and more than a little daunting, the good news is that today, about 95% of canine heartworm disease cases can be successfully treated with an adulticide, a medication designed to kill adult heartworms.
After the adulticide portion of heartworm treatment is completed, an oral medication is used to eliminate immature heartworms and prevent further infection.
Recovery generally takes at least 2 months. During this time, you will need to limit your dog’s activity to gentle leash walking, monitor his eating and drinking, watch for signs of respiratory distress (breathing hard), and keep in touch with your veterinarian. Dr. Nelson explains, “Exercise can cause the dead and dying worms to ‘shower’ the small vessels in the lungs with fragments that block blood vessels.” Dr. Buzhardt says, “Keeping a dog with heartworms quiet and still is extremely important because the lung damage that otherwise occurs cannot be reversed.”
DOLLARS AND SENSE
“The expense of treating heartworm disease is related to the dog’s size and the disease’s severity,” Dr. Nelson says. “For example, larger dogs use more drugs, which raises the cost.”
Heartworm treatment is not cheap, thanks to the diagnostic tests, medication, and clinical care involved, but it is a small price to pay for the extended health of a cherished pet.
Consult your veterinarian to learn more about treating heartworm disease. You can also visit the AHS website at www.heartwormsociety.org.