Heartworm Prevention: What Pet Owners Need to Know
Football pro LaDainian Tomlinson joins forces with the American Heartworm Society to educate pet parents.
Kuddles didn't seem sick, but one day the dog's owner, Kay Smith of Vista, Calif., noticed "an ugly sore on the back of her neck."
The sore did resemble a bad mosquito bite, but nobody suspected it could lead to heartworm. Kuddles took a heartworm preventative every month, Smith said, though later, she realized, she may have missed one month's dose.
The symptoms came on so subtly Smith and her husband, who saw the golden retriever every day, didn't notice.
Kuddles W. (middle initial for Wiggle) Smith almost became a heartworm statistic. She had stage two heartworm by the time her veterinarian, Dr. Ron May of the Banfield Pet Hospital in Oceanside, Calif., made the diagnosis in June 2010. But treatment did not happen immediately, Smith said. Her case had to be evaluated by a heartworm specialist, Smith said, due to a drug shortage. A specialist had to review the case and decide if Kuddles, then 6, was a candidate to receive the medication, Smith said.
Problems with the drug supply are continuing, Dr. Wallace Graham, president of the American Heartworm Society, said.
"The drug approved for killing adult heartworm in dogs is unavailable," he said. "That's a serious problem." If your dog falls victim to the disease, chances are your veterinarian will not have the medicine Immiticide (melarsomine hydrochloride), to treat the condition, Graham said.
He could not say whether the pharmaceutical companies will need a few weeks or a few months to move the drug back into the pipeline.
In the meantime, the American Heartworm Society has published a management plan for vets to use, he said, but the best medicine, as always, is prevention, and the preventative medicines are relatively inexpensive.
For approximately the cost of one premium coffee a month, pet owners can protect their animals against heartworm, he said. On the other hand, treating Kuddles for heartworm cost $2,500 and caused pet owner and dog three months of agony, Smith said.
"It was heartbreaking," she said. "My heart just ached."
After the first treatment, the dog's "whole hind quarters" went down, and she couldn't walk. Smith remembers the expression in her dog's eyes, as if to say, "What just happened to me."
For the first six weeks, "it was touch and go," Smith said. "She was pretty weak," she said, and no one could say if Kuddles would make it. Smith, a physician's assistant in her own family practice, understood the risks.
Many dogs do survive the treatment, according to Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, chief medical officer for Banfield, but they risk death due to a clot. It's not really a blood clot, he said but actually a mass of dead worms, killed by the treatment. They move from the dog's heart into the lungs and can effectively block the blood vessel, causing a fatal embolism. The hope is, the dog does not have too many worms and the worms will die slowly, he said. Nonetheless, for the three-to-four months of treatment, the dog has to be confined to a crate because exercise increases the risk.
"That's why we really need to get rid of this disease," he said. "It's so easy to prevent but so hard to treat." he recommended pet owners talk to their vet about the right preventative medicine because that drug is available in pills, by injection and topically.
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