By Connie Vanacore
Spring is traditionally the time of year when owners have their pets’ blood tested for heartworm disease. Why? Because dogs who were exposed to heartworm-carrying mosquitoes last summer will begin to show symptoms of the disease in March or April.
It takes about eight months for the parasites, which the mosquito injects into the bloodstream of the dog, to reach the heart and lungs, where they are transformed into adult heartworms. Even though dogs have been on the medication regularly, veterinarians recommend testing every year because the preventative may not be 100 percent effective.
Coughing, shortness of breath, wheezing, and sometimes abnormal heart or lung sounds may indicate the presence of heartworm infestation. If heartworms are not eliminated from the dog by prolonged and expensive treatment, the lungs, arteries, and heart will eventually become clogged with heartworms, blocking the flow of blood and oxygen to those organs.
An Ounce of Prevention …
Prevention is simple. A once-a-month chewable pill will keep heartworm larvae from developing in the dog. Heartworm disease was, until about 10 years ago, largely confined to the Southeastern states, where the climate is warm and moist: Perfect breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Now, however, with changing weather patterns, and the transportation of dogs everywhere, the only place where mosquitoes and the parasites they carry are rarely found is in the desert.
Most veterinarians recommend year-round administration of heartworm preventative. However, unless you are in an area which does not freeze, or where mosquitoes grow fur, it is probably safe to suspend treatment after the first hard freeze until the temperature rises above about 40 degrees Fahrenheit. The preventative also protects against other types of internal parasites, such as roundworm and whipworm.
It is often not practical to try to eliminate mosquitoes from the environment. However, since these pests thrive in standing water, it is helpful to rid your yard of standing water as much as possible. Some people like to leave old tires or tubes which puppies use for play. These are perfect reservoirs for mosquitoes. Change water in outdoor buckets at least once a day, and don’t forget to change the water in the birdbaths, too. If you are fortunate enough to have well-drained soil, you would not have to worry about spraying. If you live near swampy land or stagnant ponds, it would be worthwhile to have those areas sprayed periodically, if at all possible.
Topical sprays may keep mosquitoes off your dog, but they are not foolproof and must be constantly renewed.
When you have your dog’s blood tested for heartworm disease, sometimes veterinarians test for Lyme disease at the same time. Be aware that if your dog has ever had Lyme disease, it will test positive even though there are no active bacteria present. If the dog has been vaccinated against Lyme disease it will always test positive.
Deer ticks-tiny, almost invisible crawling critters-also make their appearance, along with other tick species, when temperatures rise above 40 degrees.
The deer tick is the variety that carries Lyme disease bacteria, but other types of ticks carry different unpleasant diseases. Among these are Rocky Mountain spotted fever and erlichiosis. The range of all types of ticks has spread from localized regions to almost all parts of the United States for the same reason that mosquitoes have migrated to places never before seen.
Lyme disease and some of the other tick-borne illnesses are characterized by joint pain, lethargy, lack of appetite. If left untreated, the spirochete that carries the bacteria may migrate from the bloodstream into the heart, lungs, or other organs, including the brain. Tick-borne diseases respond very well to antibiotics, so if you suspect your dog might have been bitten by a tick of any sort and shows signs of illness, don’t delay in getting treatment.
Prevention is always preferable to the cure.
Adapted from a column published in Dog News Digest; reprinted with permission.
Connie Vanacore is AKC Delegate from the Irish Setter Club of America and chair of the Delegates Canine Health Committee.