I work at a vet, and my dog had heartworm infection

In 2009 I had just moved to Oregon.  My husband and I had decided to add another dog to our family.  A cute little rat dog caught our eye at a local adoption event and we just had to have him! Luca Chiweenie quickly snuggled his way into our hearts and we had to find him a new vet.

Having not found Frontier yet, I went to another hospital near our house.   With some previous vet experience, I knew I needed to make sure his insides were as cute and healthy as his outsides! As a rescue, we had no previous records or history, other than knowing he came from the southern half of the United States.  When the blood work came back, I was shocked to find that he was heartworm positive.  That doctor gave us medication to kill the microfilaria (microscopic baby worms), and we were under instructions to treat for 6 months and then do a follow-up heartworm test. Their hope was that the infection was slight and that he would not need further treatment.

Fast forward 6 months and I had started my job here at Frontier.  We brought him in and ran a repeat blood test; he was still positive. I remember being so scared and worried about the treatment that he was about to undergo.  If we didn’t move forward with treatment, he would eventually die. We had just gotten him, and we couldn’t bear to say goodbye so soon.

Our technicians did some radiographs (doggy x-rays) to check for particular patterns in the blood vessels or an enlargement of his heart.  He was then started on an antibiotic and steroid medication. He would take these throughout his treatment. We also had to place a special order for the Imiticide medication that would kill the heartworms.

He had to have a series of 3 injections, 1 injection the first day and then the 2 others a month later a day apart. Each of his injections had to be given in his back muscles. It was so awful! But he was such a trooper, I don’t know if I would have been as brave as him! Each injection left him spacey and lethargic for days afterword. We felt helpless.  On top of the emotional stress of having a sick dog, we had to discuss the financial burden this caused us. Heartworm Disease treatment can range between $1,000- $2,000. That was a huge expense right when we had moved to the area.  It was a tough decision, but of course, he is worth it.

The other half of his treatment included strict “bed rest” as we called it. For about 3 months he had to stay on a small leash within our reach, or in his kennel. No stairs, no running, no jumping, nothing that could increase his heart rate. I am pretty lucky that he is an 8lb Chihuahua that doesn’t mind snuggling!!

After we finally got that negative heartworm test, there was so much happiness and relief. The worst was behind us. That was 7 years ago. He is still doing great and still loves his snuggle time. He still receives his heartworm preventive every month on schedule! I know that it may seem expensive to pay the money for a monthly heartworm preventative, but I know from experience that it is worth it.

What is heartworm disease?

Heartworm Disease is a very serious disease that results in severe lung disease, heart failure, other organ damage, and death in pets, mainly dogs, cats and ferrets. It is caused by a parasitic worm called Dirofilaria immitis. The worms are spread through the bite of a mosquito.  Heartworm disease is very much what it sounds like:  a worm that lives in the heart.  But it has to get there with the help of a mosquito.  When a mosquito bites an infected animal (dog, cat, coyote, fox, wolf, etc) and takes a blood meal, the mosquito ingests tiny microfilaria worms.  Within the mosquito, these mature into infective larvae within two weeks, and then when the mosquito bites another susceptible animal it injects them with the infective larvae into the skin. It takes up to 6 months for these larvae to mature to adult heartworms, but once mature they migrate into the heart.  An adult heartworm can be several inches long, much like thick spaghetti pasta, and there can be anywhere from one worm to dozens of worms inside a dogs heart.  They take up space within the heart obstruction blood flow and compromising heart function, they block the valves from working properly, and they overflow into the lungs causing obstruction of vessels. All of this adds up to a very sick dog.

From the time of infection, adult heartworms can live for 5-7 years in a dog and 2-3 years in a cat.  Because it takes 6 months to develop into a mature infection, initially there are no signs of the infection.  But once the worms mature, they can cause a host of problems.  In dogs, signs can range from a mild cough, reluctance to exercise, fatigue after activity, to decreased appetite and weight loss.  Severe disease can cause heart failure and a swollen abdomen due to fluid accumulation.  Cats can present with a mild cough all the way to sudden collapse and death.

Heartworm is treatable but simply given the delicate location of where they live, it’s a complicated and dangerous treatment.  In dogs, treatment involves several medications, absolute strict rest, and painful injections to kill the worms.

There is no treatment for heartworm in cats. For more information on heartworm disease, please click here or visit the American Heartworm Society.

LINK: Heartworm: Separating myth from fact

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