Thursday, August 7, 2008

Heartworm Disease in Dogs

Being a long term dog owner I have always been aware of heartworm. I knew the disease was devastating, but what I didn't know was how serious the treatment is as well. I am finding out the hard way as my German Shepherd dog Tony (pictured here) has a heartworm infection.

I got Tony from the local German Shepherd rescue in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Apparently he was found wandering the streets of the South Valley, near the Rio Grande river which is an environment ripe for mosquitos. Since heartworm transmits mosquitos, that means being by the river is a risky area for heartworm. Tony had been picked up by the local animal control, and the woman who runs German Shepherd dog rescue bailed him out. She put him up for adoption shortly after.

At the time, I had recently lost my German Shepherd of 10 and a half years, a large male named Sam. He died suddenly of stomach torsion and I was pretty devastated. A friend recommended I contact the rescue lady and she had Tony-and it turns out Tony looks a lot like Sam. So I went ahead and adopted him. Since he had spent some time in the animal shelter I figured he had been checked out, at least he had gotten all his shots.

So this summer I took Tony for his annual vet visit and was shocked to find out he tested positive for heartworm. I live near the mountains, and while there are mosquitos up there its generally a pretty dry environment. My vet suspects Tony got infected while living on the streets by the river.

Heartworm is a disease in dogs transmitted by mosquitos. I don't want to get into the details of the infection and life cycle of the worm in this article, but what makes the disease such a problem is the adult worms live in the pulmonary artery. Now of course this is a major problem so the disease must be treated, otherwise the dog faces certain death.

So I take Tony in and they did some x-rays and blood work. These tests came back great-his heart, lungs, and kidneys are all normal indicating the infection is not that advanced. This fact together with his young age (Tony is about 2 years) indicates that Tony will probably recover.

But the treatment is just nuts. I brought Tony in last Monday and they gave him the first treatment which is an injection into the muscle. What sucks about this is that the medicine kills the worms and then the worms break up into little pieces. They travel through the bloodstream where they can block the blood vessels. More specifically what they can do is cause a pulmonary embolism. This can happen in people, you go on a long airline flight and get a blood clot in your lower leg from sitting still for so long. It travels to your lung where it plugs up a blood vessel in your lungs and BAM! Instant death.

Basically the same thing can happen in a dog but the worm takes the place of a blood clot. The trick to have the dog recover is keep them confined. If they don't move around much, then it gives the body time to break down the worms safely. But if the dog runs around or gets overly excited, pieces of worm will travel rapidly to the wrong places and kill the dog. Worst news: the dog has to stay locked up for 42 days.

The vet said that what often happens is after a couple of weeks the dog seems fine. Then the owners feel sorry for the dog and let the dog out. The third week happens to be the danger zone when the pieces of worm are broken up the most and the right size to cause a pulmonary embolism, and then either the dog has a medical emergency or drops dead.

I've had Tony confined in a crate for three days so far. He is not enjoying it. I own 4 other dogs which doesn't help! He wants to get out and play with them, but has to stay in the crate 24 hours a day 7 days a week with the exception of three potty breaks spaced throughout the day. Also you have to take them out on a leash to go to the bathroom to prevent them from running around.

More to say about heartworm and Tony later!

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