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Why giving heartworm prevention is truly necessary

January 27, 2016
by Jackie Singer
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On December 13, I took my foster dog, Jeb, in for his first heartworm treatment.  He’s going to get three injections because his heartworm infection is severe and his lungs have been compromised, even though he’s only eighteen months old.  Jeb came to Minnesota from a great rescue in the southern United States who received some bad advice from a vet and didn’t treat his heartworm infection right away.  So what?  So now here we are, treating it 5 months later, and he’s a much higher risk patient.

I’m writing this because it’s important that people realize how horrible heartworm infection is.  Jeb is my third foster dog with it.  Luckily, I’ve not lost one yet, though my first one was very close.  We received my beagle, Pig, from the south as well, and he tested negative for heartworm when we got him, so we thought he was safe.  We put him on year-round preventative and were ready to place him in a forever home.  He wasn’t an easy placement, though, and 9 months later, he was still with us, so we boarded him with our dogs when we went on vacation.  The day we picked him up, I noticed something was not right.  His balance was off and he was staggering.  He started to walk into walls.  I immediately took him to Brooklyn Park Pet Hospital, where his reflexes continued to deteriorate.  They referred me to the University of Minnesota, so off we rushed to the emergency room.

After numerous tests, they couldn’t find anything wrong with Pig, so they monitored him for a bit, kept him on fluids, and when it appeared that he was coming around, sent him home with us, after we’d racked up about $1,500 in charges.  When we took Pig back to BPPH for his annual exam and vaccine update three weeks later, we found out what had happened – Pig was heartworm positive, and it was likely that a heartworm had broken off and hit his brain.   At this point, we scheduled his three-injection treatment and adopted him, since it was clear that we weren’t going to be able to nurse him through his embolism and heartworm treatment, foster him a year, and then place him in another home.  Luckily, Pig made it through all of this with no residual problems, and we have a dog who loves us dearly.  The only thing we can figure is that the test was done in the short period of time after the dog is bitten by the infected mosquito, but before the worms were mature enough to detect.  Just our luck, right?

Not everyone realizes how serious the treatment is, or how serious the repercussions are if you don’t treat your dog.  We have to watch Jeb closely for signs of pneumonia, compromised breathing, or any signs that he may have had a dying heartworm compromise his pulmonary system.  We have to do this for 8 weeks, while we keep him quiet, which means nothing but leash walking and no playtime with the other dogs.  Have you ever tried to do that with an eighteen-month-old puppy?  Not the easiest thing in the world, but absolutely necessary, since an elevated heartrate greatly increases the risk of pulmonary embolism, which could kill him.

What’s the upside?  At the end of the eight weeks, we’ll have a healthy dog, ready for adoption with a forever family.  Jeb’s a wonderful boy and worth the effort.  It just would have been so much easier if his former owners had kept him on heartworm preventative.  It’s not that much money, given the risks it covers.  It’s really not.