Chalk one more thing up to El Nino: All the water it has brought our way is contributing to what will be a bumper crop of mosquitoes in many parts of the country. And while those pests mean lots of scratching for us humans, for our dogs the risk can be far more serious. In a word, heartworm.
That's because without mosquitoes, there wouldn't be a problem with this deadly parasite. Mosquitoes pick up the microscopic heartworm larvae in the blood of infested animals and help the parasites find a new home while drawing the blood of another victim. In a worm-friendly environment -- such as a dog -- the tiny pests head for the pulmonary arteries and develop into 9- to 14-inch worms that will if left untreated eventually choke the life out of their host.
Still, it isn't easy to convince some people that their dogs need to be protected against heartworm. To some, putting out money to prevent something they can't see makes them wonder if the whole thing wasn't cooked up by veterinarians and drug companies.
But the facts prove otherwise. Heartworm disease has been found in every state, and it's nothing to mess with.
Heartworm symptoms are virtually the same as with any other form of heart disease. Most infested dogs are brought to the veterinarian after their owners noticed them coughing at night, coughing after exercise or experiencing a more general loss in condition -- weight loss, dull coat, lethargy. By the time the symptoms are noticed, however, a great deal of damage has usually been done, not only to the heart, but also to other organs such as the kidneys, which rely on a steady flow of blood to operate.
Preventive care remains the best way of protecting your pet from the pest. That care starts with a heartworm test, a simple procedure that involves drawing blood and checking for the presence of the larvae. The test is essential, since the preventive medication given to a heartworm-free dog can be dangerous for a dog with a heartworm infestation.
If the test is negative, there are two kinds of medication available to keep the dog free of heartworms. The daily pill protects by keeping a low dose of poison circulating in the blood to kill the microfilaria before they get a chance to settle. The monthly pill works by killing the worms that have established themselves in the preceding month. This season, one company is even combining the monthly pill with monthly flea-control medication.
Which should you use? It's up to you, and it depends on what you're more likely to administer reliably. The daily pills work perfectly, but only if you have a perfect record of giving them to your dog. A lapse of a day or so is more than enough time for the pest to get established.
If you're inclined to skip days, then the monthly medication may be your best bet. And if you start on the daily pills but stop for whatever reason, a switch in a month's time to the other treatment will ensure that your pet will be protected.
A positive heartworm test will likely require treatment to save your pet's life. New medications make treatment safer these days, but your veterinarian will likely still suggest tests beforehand to spot any complicating factors, including blood and urine screens and chest X-rays. If that sounds expensive, than it's just another reason why prevention is the only way to go with this pest, especially in a year such as this one.
Preventive care, starting with good nutrition and exercise, is easy to overlook or put off. But nothing will make as powerful a day-to-day difference in the life of your pet as good health. And heartworm prevention is part of ensuring it.
Pets on the Web: While shows are probably a better "best" place to study animal breeds, the Internet offers a lot of possibilities. This week found me musing about the Abyssinian, a handsome cat who looks more than a little like a panther. A good page to find more about this breed is Patti Cassalia's Abyssinian FAQ (www.tdl.com/(tilde)pattic/abyfaq). Also, the bottom of this page has a link to the Cat Fanciers Web site (www.fanciers.com). Good reading, great pictures.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies" and "Cats for Dummies," and is the editorial director of the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or e-mail to Giori(at)aol.com.
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