Speaking from Experience:
One Pet Owner’s Story of how Heartworms Affected her Family


YuraA little over a year ago I relocated to the Greeley area from Iowa and found a home for myself and my six year-old Siberian husky, Yura. I was lucky enough to join the West Ridge Animal Hospital team, and having never worked in the veterinary field before, my ideas of veterinary care and all that it entailed, was fairly limited. I learned so much in the first few months of my new experience and gained a vast amount of knowledge of what it means for a pet to be a real member of the family, and what it takes to keep my “furry kid” happy and healthy.

Having lived outdoors for the majority of her life, Yura was exposed to the Mid-West’s hot and humid summers where the air hums with mosquitoes carrying deadly heartworms. Prior to my experience at West Ridge Animal Hospital, I had no knowledge of heartworms or the devastation they can cause to our pets. While living in Iowa, Yura was bitten by one or many of these mosquitoes. I have since learned that it only takes ONE bite by a heartworm carrying mosquito to infect an animal with the disease. Mosquitos initially get the heartworm larva from the blood of other infected animals that they bite, including; other dogs, cats, coyotes, wolves, and foxes. When the mosquito bit Yura it injected her with the heartworm larva that then made its way into her circulatory system. Eventually the heartworm larva made their home in her heart and arteries; growing, breeding, and clogging her body.

Yura showed no symptoms of being infected with heartworm; again, there were zero outward signs that Yura was infected with this deadly parasite. If I had not brought her in for a wellness exam, and done the veterinarian recommended annual heartworm test (which I had never previously been informed of), I would have never known her life was at risk.

Heartworm infected heartAfter receiving the devastating news that my puppy had heartworms, and confirming the test results, my veterinarian and I started the long and difficult journey of treatment. The first step was restricting her exercise and keeping her calm. This was no easy feat as the owner of any active breed can tell you, and required a substantial investment in Kong toys and all-natural peanut butter. Next were the several rounds of antibiotics, steroids, and injections. Yura’s antibiotic treatment consisted of giving her pills twice a day for a couple weeks, which took a little creativity on my part in finding snacks tasty enough to cover the pill, but healthy enough to give frequently. The steroids gave her body a boost during the treatment, resulting in an increased thirst, which meant she needed a lot more potty breaks…at 2 o’clock in the morning…and 4 o’clock in the morning…in other words, forget getting a good night’s sleep!

Then came the injections; the really scary part! The medication used on Yura was melarsomine, an arsenic based substance that kills the adult heartworms living in the heart and pulmonary veins. These injections must be given deep in the muscles of the back. Veterinarian technicians had to hold Yura absolutely still during the injection. If she were to have moved while the medicine was being administered three inches deep into her lumbar muscle, right along her spine, she could have caused the needle to hit her spinal cord, resulting in paralysis. This is enough to worry any pet parent, but the scary stuff still wasn’t over. After the injections, Yura had to remain in the hospital for observation. There was the chance her body could have reacted badly to the arsenic based melarsomine. Additionally, the medicine breaks up the actual heartworms, causing pieces of them to float through her blood stream until they are absorbed. If Yura was too active during this process, these pieces could lodge in her lungs or other organs causing her to stroke or asphyxiate. These complications are partly why the treatment of this disease can be dangerous, yet remains necessary.

Yura’s first injection went smoothly; she stayed the night in the hospital and a nurse was there to observe her for a full twenty-four hours. There were no reactions, she acted just fine, and I was feeling good about our progress with her treatment. A month later, we did the second of the three injections, and I had to worry about her all over again. This injection started out just like the first, she cooperated well while they held her to administer the shot. However, shortly after, the veterinarian technicians began to notice she was acting a little off. Panting heavily, crying, and just unable to get comfortable, they recognized the signs of her being in pain right away. The technicians and the veterinarian rushed to action taking her blood pressure, checking her heart rate, and quickly administering the medication necessary to relieve her extreme pain, which would lower her heart rate and keep her calm. It was absolutely vital to keep her heart rate at a normal level or we risked the pieces of heartworms killing her. I have no doubt that the vigilance of the technicians, and the fast action of the treatment team saved Yura’s life.

Yura stayed the night in the hospital, remaining on an IV drip of pain medication throughout the night and the next day, and receive her third and final injection, which took place without any hiccups. After a two night stay in the hospital, a fair amount of pain medications, and some special attention and love from the West Ridge Team, Yura got to go home. She was still painful for a few days after the injection, but now seems to be recovering from her ordeal. With a few more weeks of exercise restriction to go, and a final heartworm test to double check that the treatment did its job, we are beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel.

Our calendar is marked on the day Yura gets to exercise again, and we get to return to our normal active lives. Thankfully it will be just in time for camping and hiking season, as I can only imagine how upset Yura would be if she was not allowed to wear her backpack and hike with the rest of the family. Our calendar is also marked on the fifteenth of every month from here on out, as the day Yura is given her heartworm prevention pill. Treatment for a heartworm positive dog is a very long, painful, stressful, and sometimes dangerous ordeal for both you and your pet. Your dog does not understand why it cannot go on walks, or play with its toys, or visit its friends at the park. Your dog does not understand why it is staying in the hospital instead of its own warm bed at home. Your dog does not understand that even though getting poked hurts, you are doing it to save their life. Their ability to not understand is what is so hard for an owner to deal with. Convincing them that taking pills and naps is for their own good is not an easy task. It can become heartbreaking when those sad eyes are staring you down, and those little paws are literally shaking with the anticipation of getting to run and play again.

I guess what I am trying to say, from one pet owner to another, is to please, please, please get your dog tested for heartworm, and give them their preventative, once a month, every month. I have discovered first had that the slight monetary cost of this little pill does nothing to showcase its value when compared with the financial and emotional cost of treating a heartworm positive dog.

The American Heartworm Society recommends yearly testing for heartworms for several reasons:

“Annual testing is recommended for several important reasons. First, many of us do not take our own medications as directed let alone medicate our pets. We're busy; we forget; we miss a dose here and there. Second, even if you never miss a dose there is nothing to prevent your dog from eating some grass and vomiting up the medication you just gave. Your pet would be without protection for an entire month. Third, if your pet accidentally became infected with heartworms, your veterinarian needs to detect it as soon as possible before irreversible heart and lung damage occur. Early detection and treatment are always best. Annual testing provides peace of mind in knowing that your pet is free of heartworms, and should your pet be infected, it assures you of early diagnosis”.

Additionally, giving a heartworm positive animal the medication to prevention heartworms could have serious life threatening consequences. For additional information from the American Heartworm Society, please visit: http://www.heartwormsociety.org/.

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