What is Heartworm Disease and How is it Treated?

This month’s question about heartworm disease is dedicated to Boomer one of the most recent dogs I have treated for the disease. Heartworm disease is actually exactly what it sounds like, worms that live in the heart!! Now, how they get to the heart is an interesting and very long story with a very unfortunate outcome for the animal. Dogs and, actually, cats, can contract heartworms by getting bitten by an infected mosquito. As everyone who lives in Georgia knows, we have lots mosquitoes and they love to bite us and our animals, so every dog and cat in Georgia is at risk for contracting heartworms. Actually the southeastern part of the United States has the highest incidence of heartworm infection in dogs. The clinical signs in dogs and cats are a bit different but in general heartworm disease can cause respiratory distress, chronic heart disease/failure and sudden death if left untreated. In this article I am really focusing on heartworm disease in dogs, as we do have a treatment. But I want everyone to know that all cats (even inside only) can get the disease, too. Unfortunately we do not have a treatment for them. The same treatment/drug that we use in dogs will cause death in cats, so heartworm preventative medication is the only sure way of being sure your beloved kitties are protected.

So after reading what I just said about heartworms in dogs, you will think that it is great that there is a treatment for dogs if they contract the disease, and you might wonder why you should spend all that money on year round heartworm prevention. Well not so fast!!! The treatment option can end poorly for your dog also. Putting it bluntly, the long and short of the treatment is that it can end in death also. The treatment process for dogs is over 4 months long and is very stressful on the body. After the injections have been started, the medicine starts to kill the adult heartworms. The body then has to get rid of the worms, which is the dangerous part. These dead worms can form an embolus and get lodged in the lungs, in the heart vessels or other parts of the blood stream causing a vascular event, a stroke and even death. Also having worms in the heart can cause permanent damage to the heart, which can lead to heart failure and an early death.

The problem that I run into with owners about heartworm prevention and treatment is cost and compliance. With good reason, owners are worried about the cost of prevention, which can be $100-200 per year, but this is cheap compared to the cost of treatment, which can be $1200 – 1800. Once I have convinced owners that it is better for their dog (and easier on their wallet) to use the prevention, then they have to give the medicine on a consistent basis, or it doesn’t work. Most heartworm preventions are given orally and monthly. It is very important to give the prevention on time because if you forget and give it every other month then your dog is at risk for contracting heartworms. There are lots of ways to remember to give the prevention such as stickers that come in the medication package and apps for your cell phone. For those of us who just have so much going on in our lives and are afraid we might forget to give the medication, there is actually an option for a six month slow release injection that you can get from your veterinarian.

I hope that, with all of the information that I have given you about heartworms and the awful problems they can cause, you will talk to your veterinarian to get your beloved dog on a prevention that works for you and your lifestyle. For those of you who love to do research on the web, https://www.heartwormsociety.org/ is a great resource for owners. I am also so thankful for the Georgia SPCA because when they find these dogs that are positive for heartworms they let me give them a second chance at life by treating them. Then dogs like Boomer can find their wonderful forever family!!!