Ask the RV Vet
With Dr. Deanna Tolliver, M.S., DVM
Occasionally I forget to take a daily vitamin pill. And I may forget to set out the trash to be picked up. But there’s one routine I don’t forget: I always remember to give my dogs their monthly heartworm prevention.
I remember because it’s vitally important and potentially fatal. Okay, so there’s also the reminder sticker I put on my calendar ahead of time, but regardless…..I make sure they get it.
LATEST PET RECALLS: This week marked the biggest number of dog and cat raw food recalls in many years. Is your pet food on the list?
No matter where you live, your dog and cat are at risk of getting heartworms: they’ve been found in every state except Alaska.
As the name implies, these are worms that live in the hearts of dogs and cats. They can be up to a foot long! How they get them is an almost unbelievable, but it happens every day. Here’s the story:
Female heartworms that live in a dog’s heart produce baby worms. The technical name for them is microfilaria, and they circulate in the dog’s bloodstream. Here’s the crazy part: when a mosquito bites the dog, it picks up these baby worms, which further develop IN THE MOSQUITO. Then, a couple of weeks later when the microfilaria have matured, AND the mosquito bites another dog, the baby worms are deposited on the skin of the second dog, and they migrate through the mosquito’s bite wound.
After about six months, the baby worms become adult heartworms, and they take up residence in the dog’s heart. The adults can live for 5-7 years in a dog, and 2-3 years in a cat. They don’t live as long in a cat because cats are not their natural host, as dogs are. So in cats, most heartworms don’t live long enough to become adults.
Dogs can die from heartworms. They can die even when treated if they’ve been infected for a long time. Not only is the heart damaged, but the lungs and arteries can also be affected as well. Symptoms can include a chronic cough, tiredness, decreased appetite, and weight loss.
You can prevent all of this from happening to your dog, and cat, by giving them a preventative “treat” every month. In typical cat fashion, some cats, and some dogs don’t like the “tasty treat” and owners may have to cut the pill/chew into smaller pieces and hide it in food, for example. When you buy a box of prevention, you also get a sheet of reminder stickers to put on your calendar ahead of time.
Heartworm prevention is by prescription only from your veterinarian, and all dogs and cats must be tested before taking it. Here’s why: if you gave it to a dog that had heartworms, it’s possible that all those hundreds of thousands of baby worms would be killed. That could set up an anaphylactic shock situation that could kill the dog.
Even if you are certain you have given the prevention every month, it is still wise to get your pet tested every year. It is rare, but some pets still get infected in spite of being on prevention.
There IS a treatment for dogs that get heartworms. It can be expensive but is usually effective. Part of the treatment includes keeping the dog quiet for a month or more, and that can be the most challenging part of treatment.
Unfortunately, there is no treatment for cats, but the disease can be managed. If a cat stays on prevention every month, the adult heartworms usually die after two to three years. During that time, however, there can still be damage to the heart and lungs.
As RVers, we often travel to areas that may expose our pets to potential dangers. Your dog and cat are not safe from heartworms until they have been tested and put on prevention.
C’mon…..have a heart and put your (pet’s) heart in the right place. Test and prevent heartworms!
Did you miss my last column on microchipping? If so, click here.
Dr. Deanna welcomes your questions. Email her at [email protected]
Dr. Deanna Tolliver has been a full-time RVer for over 3 years, although she has been an RVer for several more. She travels with a fifth wheel and a 1-ton dually truck. Her travel companions include 4 small dogs (Tootie, Chiquita, BooBoo, and Janie), and a 36-year-old Yellow-Naped Amazon Parrot named Toby. She has a BS and MS in biology and zoology, respectively, and a Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine from the University of Missouri, Columbia. She owned a veterinary hospital for many years and recently handed over the reins to a new owner.