Manatee no-kill column: Open your heart, guard your dogs against heartworm

February 5, 2013 

Valentine's Day is coming and we will be turning to matters of the heart.

We eagerly look forward to heart-shaped boxes of chocolates, heart-shaped candy and, if lucky, heart-shaped jewelry. As Feb. 14 approaches and you embrace the holiday, we hope that all dog owners will include their dogs' hearts in their thoughts as well.

Manatee County Animal Services deals with hundreds of cases of heartworms every year. It is important that all dog owners are aware of the causes, dangers, cures and prevention of this potentially deadly condition.

The first published description of heartworm in the United States appeared more than 100 years ago. Since then, it has become a world-wide clinical problem, found in all 50 states and particularly prevalent near coastal waters.

Heartworm in dogs is caused by a parasite that is transmitted solely by mosquitoes. All dogs, regardless of their age, sex or habitat, are susceptible to heartworm infection. The moment your dog is bitten by an infected mosquito, larvae transfers into their bloodstream where it will incubate for several days and then be transported through the bloodstream into the heart.

It takes a little over six months for the infective larvae to mature into adult worms. Once the parasites find their way into the right ventricle, they will duplicate in number, eventually causing damage to your dog's vital organs. The initial symptom is coughing as the parasites find their way in the lungs, veins and liver, where they can cause severe damage.

The good news is that heartworms can very easily be prevented and the prevention is safe, easy and inexpensive. Options

for preventing heartworm infection include daily and monthly tablets and chewables, monthly topical preventive and a six-month injectable product. All of these methods are extremely effective, and when administered properly and on a timely schedule, heartworm infection can be completely prevented.

Talk to your veterinarian about your options. Puppies should begin preventive treatment at 6 to 8 weeks of age. Before you can start treatment for your older dog, it is important to have your dogs tested for heartworms. The test is a simple blood draw and is an inexpensive way to have some peace of mind, getting you started on the path to a heart healthy dog.

The other good news in that heartworm infection is treatable in most dogs. When treatment is required, the adult heartworms are killed with a drug that is injected into the muscle. During the one- to two-month recovery period, your dog's exercise should be limited to leash walks.

Have a heart and protect your dog's heart. In order to not have the problem in the first place, prevention is the answer. Pet ownership is a privilege, and we owe our dogs the best protection against harm that we can provide.

If you are interested in helping Manatee County Animal Services save our heartworm-positive dogs, consider becoming a transitional foster parent or adopting one of many dogs awaiting treatment. Check next week's column for more information or contact us today. Visit our website at www.MyManatee.org/pets or call our shelter at 941-742-5933.

If you never have to look into the eyes of a dog or cat and make a choice, you are lucky. One day, we all would like to be lucky too.

Kris Weiskopf, chief of Manatee County Animal Services, writes this weekly column for the Bradenton Herald.

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