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Prevention is key in battle against heartworms

Q: My neighbor's dog was diagnosed with heartworms recently. She is very upset. I have not been giving my dog once-a-month heartworm pills, and I am afraid my dog is positive too. Can my dog catch heartworms from her dog? What do I do if it does? Those pills are so expensive. What should I do?

A: For whatever reason, we have been finding more heartworm positive dogs in our practice than ever before. Recently, we have even seen multiple pets in the same family infected. It is very hard to tell an owner that not one but two dogs are infected with a disease that can be prevented. I have tried to come up with some reasons to explain this increase in number of cases we are diagnosing in our practice. Only by knowing why a disease is occurring can it be prevented better.

One factor is the warm winters we have been having here in West Virginia. We need cold weather to kill down the population of mosquitoes that transmit the disease from dog to dog. Without the colder weather, mosquitoes continue to bite and spread the disease year-round.

Another factor is the availability of certain heartworm preventatives. Novartis, who makes Sentinel and Interceptor brands of preventative, has stopped production of the drugs because of manufacturing issues. They say they will resume soon, but no official date has been made available to the public. Pet owners are having other brands made available to them, but some owners are reluctant to change brands and have decided to stop giving their preventatives altogether until their old brands are back on the market.

Finally, the basic cost of monthly heartworm prevention, especially for pet owners with multiple pets, is difficult to fit into their monthly budgets. Unfortunately, mosquitoes will bite those dogs too, and the cost of treating a dog with heartworms is quite high. The old saying is still true: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

That being said, your neighbor is not alone and needs to understand that she can treat and cure her dog from heartworm disease.

But every dog that has been around her dog during the time it was infected is at risk of also contracting heartworms if it was not taking monthly heartworm preventatives every month year-round. So my advice to you is to go to your veterinarian and have your dog tested. Resume monthly heartworm pills if it tests negative. This recommendation is for all outside dogs, all inside dogs that only go outside for the bathroom, all old dogs, all young dogs and any other dogs that basically have fur and bark. That should cover the canine species here and beyond.

But what does an owner do if her pet is positive? If untreated, heartworm is a fatal disease. So we always recommend treatment. The protocol has changed recently as directed by the American Heartworm Society. It is outlined very well on its website, and I would encourage anyone who wants more information on the disease and the treatment to go to their site. It can be found at www.heartwormsociety.org.

The protocol is long and involved for both the pet and the owner. Roughly, it will take an initial workup to stage the disease with blood work, X-rays, a urine test and a fecal test. With this information, we can plan on how to proceed with the treatment. For the length of the treatment, the pet needs to be exercise restricted, meaning on a leash only outside and cage rested mostly inside. The pet will need to be on antibiotics and steroids sometimes for several months twice daily every day. Monthly, it will need to spend a day at your veterinarian's office receiving its treatment.

Initially, this would involve simply giving a heartworm pill to kill the younger worms and pretreating with steroids and Benadryl to prevent a possible reaction. After two rounds, its treatments will change from pills to injections to kill the adult worms. Mind you, it could have a reaction at any point along the way and pass away; that is why we take a longer time to treat these dogs and are more careful. We want survivors.

The entire protocol can take four to five months depending on the age and health status of the pet. At the end, it will be cured and need to be on preventative monthly for the remainder of its life. No immunity develops after treatment.

These are the issues we are being faced with, and now, so are your neighbor and you. I openly would encourage all your friends, neighbors and family members to test if needed and begin to give those heartworm pills again to their dogs. It is just that important for the health of these pets.

Send questions for Dr. Allison Dascoli to "Ask the Vet," Charleston Daily Mail, 1001 Virginia St. E., Charleston WV 25301 or email them to askthevet@dailymail.com. Comments or suggestions can be submitted the same way.


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