Heartworm Disease Can Be Avoided
Written by Steve Dale   

Dr. Sheldon Rubin on WGN explaining heartworm disease to pet expert Steve DaleExperts stop short of calling it an epidemic but the results of a newly released nationwide survey indicate that the number heartworm cases is rising. As a result, it’s also likely more pets are dying of the disease. The tragedy is that heartworm disease in dogs, cats and ferrets is totally preventable.

In an effort to enhance awareness, The American Heartworm Society and Merial (manufacturer of a heartworm preventative) have kicked off a campaign naming April as Heartworm Awareness Month. The goal is to help veterinary professionals to educate the public about the potentially deadly disease.

The explanations for the hike in the disease are varied – but it seems compliance, actually giving the preventative medication, is the biggest problem of all, according to Dr. Sheldon Rubin, president of the American Heartworm Society.

According a second survey, released in March, approximately 1000 dog owners, 35 percent who took their dogs to veterinarian annually failed to give their pups a preventative.

Many people may mean well says Rubin, but they just forget to give the preventative. He says, “I can’t tell you how often I prescribe the monthly preventative, then a year later the client says, “I can put off buying more because I have three or four doses left.’ Well, how can that be if they’re using it each month?”

Another explanation for the erratic use of heartworm preventative may be the economy. “Using a monthly product every other month isn’t really saving money, it’s instead taking a chance with your pet’s life,” says Rubin, who practices in Chicago. “A couple of Starbucks a month is probably less money than the cost of protecting your best friend by using the monthly products as directed.”

Rubin calls another problem the ‘it won’t happen to me syndrome.’ He says, “People somehow just believe it can’t happen to them – that their pet just won’t meet that infected mosquito (infected mosquitoes carry heartworm).”

Most preventatives are chewables, or topicals which are applied by owners on the pet between the shoulder blades each month. But there is another option that works for six months at a time, called ProHeart 6.  A veterinary visit is required to use ProHeart  6 since ProHeart 6 is an injectable (like a vaccine). “Obviously one benefit (of ProHeart 6) is that compliance isn’t an issue – you know your pet is protected for six consecutive months,” says Rubin. “But then there are restrictions concerning the usage of ProHeart 6.” (An FDA mandated RiskMAP, which includes special veterinary training to use the drug as well as mandating client signatures before the product is used).

ProHeart 6 does not protect against intestinal parasites such as hookworm, roundworm, whipworm and/or tapeworm, Rubin notes. However, the monthly heartworm products provide protection against some or all of those nasty buggers. “Not only don’t you want your dog to come down with worms; these same worms can potentially be transmitted to people, most often children,” says Dr. Lynn Buzhardt, a Zachary, LA-based board member of the American Heartworm Society.

The 2007 heartworm survey was distributed to more than 40,000 veterinarians last fall. Veterinary practices from some 2,200 counties were represented. The survey confirmed that heartworm disease now occurs in all 50 states, and in many parts of the country the disease is being reported more often than ever before.  One estimate is that 40 percent of dogs aren’t protected against the disease, and it’s clear most cats (well over half) don’t have the benefit of protection.

Another explanation for the increase in heartworm is offered by Dr. Jorge Guerrero, Pennington NJ based board member of the American Heartworm Society, “Maybe people are unaware of heartworm all together, or don’t believe how serious this disease can be.” It turns out the survey confirms what Guerrero’s assertions, most people surveyed seemed to believe the disease is easily treated.

Rubin explains that when some mosquitoes bite dogs, they transmit a “baby heartworm,” called a microfilaria. These microscopic parasites ultimately transform into six to 12-inch long adult spaghetti-sized heartworm. Infected dogs may have dozens of individual heartworm clogging their heart and lungs. No wonder they often have shortness of breath and become reluctant to exercise. Without treatment they can die. Treatment success isn’t guaranteed, and it’s not cheap.

Rubin adds, “If there’s heartworm in dogs where you live, it’s a good bet that the disease is occurring – sometimes undetected – in cats as well.” A recent discovery is feline heartworm association respiratory disease; symptoms include shortness of breath and coughing. Sometimes these symptoms may be mistakenly diagnosed as feline asthma, when it’s really a result of heartworm. Another symptom of heartworm disease in cats is unfortunately sudden death. In any case, there is no treatment for heartworm disease in cats, which is why prevention is so vital.             

“The bottom line is that veterinarians have an arsenal of safe options at their disposal to fight off heartworm,” says Rubin. “Heartworm is serous – it does kill. Talk to your veterinarian about which product is best for your circumstances.”

Learn more at http://www.heartwormsociety.org/.

©Steve Dale, Tribune Media Services