An ounce of prevention is truly worth a pound of cure when it comes to our pets, and in no case can this proverb be applied to better effect than when it comes to heartworm disease.
If the parasites don't kill your pet, the cure for them might. Makes that heartworm pill seem a great decision by comparison, doesn't it?
Is a spaghetti-string of a pest really worth worrying about? You bet it is. In dogs, heartworm disease has been found in every state. And in warmer parts of the country, protecting pets against the parasite is a year-round effort.
Heartworms are transmitted by mosquitoes, which pick up the microscopic heartworm larvae called microfilarie when they draw blood from an infected animal. They share the parasites when they bite another animal. Once in a new host, the larvae make their way to heart, where they grow to be 9 to 14 inches long, blocking the flow of blood and causing severe damage and possibly death.
Heartworm symptoms are virtually the same as with any other form of heart disease. Most infested pets are brought to the veterinarian after their owners noticed them coughing at night, coughing after exercise or experiencing a more general loss in condition. 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.
Curing a heartworm infestation is not the risky business it once was, thanks to newer products that replace the old worm-killer, arsenic. But it's still nothing to wish on your best friend. Some pets don't survive even the safer treatment, and those who do have a struggle ahead of them. After the medication is administered, pets must be kept closely confined for weeks: no playing, no running, no walks except slowly and on leash, just for the purpose of pottying.
Preventive care remains the best option. That care starts with a heartworm test, a simple procedure that involves drawing blood and checking for the presence of the larvae.
If the test is negative, there are two forms of medication available to keep the dog free of heartworms. The daily pills protect by keeping a low dose of a chemical that is poisonous to the immature pests circulating in your pet's blood. The dose is safe for your pet, and it denies the worms a chance to settle in and grow.
The monthly pill provides enough of a different and similarly safe, effective drug in your pet to cover an entire month. (An added benefit of the monthlies: One manufacturer has combined the heartworm preventive with medications to help control fleas and intestinal parasites.)
Which product should you use? Talk to your veterinarian, and be clear about which you're more likely to administer reliably. If you're inclined to skip days, the monthly medication is your best bet. If you can reliably integrate the daily pill into your routine, though, it's a fine choice. And you can always switch to a monthly product if you miss enough days for the larvae to establish themselves.
A good way to ensure that your pet gets his monthly pill is to always give it on the same, easy-to-remember day of the month -- the first, perhaps, or the 15th.
Heartworm disease is often thought of as a problem just for dogs, but cats can also be infected, albeit nowhere near as commonly. Dr. Paul D. Pion, a board-certified veterinary cardiologist and president of the Veterinary Information Network (and my "Cats for Dummies" co-author), recommends checking with your veterinarian to see if heartworms are turning up in cats in your area. If the answer is yes, he recommends putting your cat on preventive medication.
PETS ON THE WEB
A visit to the Web sites of a pair of pet-loving mystery writers should give you some ideas for what books to take to the beach this summer. Carole Nelson Douglas writes a series in which a fabulous black feline named Midnight Louie figures prominently. Just out is "Cat in an Indigo Mood" (Forge, $24.95). The others you can find listed on her Web site (www. catwriter.com/cdouglas) along with Louie's online newsletter, the Scratching Post-Intelligencer.
For dog lovers, especially those with a passion for poodles, a visit to Laurien Berenson's Web site (members.aol.com/LTBerenson) is in order. "Watchdog" (Kensington, $20) is the most recent in her dog-show series, featuring amateur sleuth Melanie Travis.
Just now showing up in pet-supply stores and catalogs is a whimsical collection of furniture designed with felines in mind. Doskocil created the cat-sized pieces in the shape of a TV, a chair and a sock drawer, all with comfy places for cats to snooze (inside the "screen," in the case of the TV). The manufacturer swears the plastic pieces are easy to assemble (but the cat seems to have gotten its tongue on the topic of whether or not its products will keep your pet off the rest of your furniture). Priced from $50 up, the pieces seem a purrfect place for a nap, so maybe you'll get lucky.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: I have an 8-month-old cat (spayed) who is an inside/outside cat. Up until she was 7 months old, I lived in a house on several acres of land. She came and went as she pleased during the day, and at night I would bring her inside. There were not many threats to her safety because she never had to go near the road.
I moved last month. The front yard consists of a small lawn that is the only barrier between the road and the house. It's a somewhat busy road on which people tend to speed. I've already caught my cat in the roadside ditch chasing birds, which scared me.
In back of the house, we have a good-sized fenced-in lawn. But nearby are two pit bulls who are allowed to roam around for the most part. Right now, they can easily get into our back yard to chase my cat. We are building a better fence to remedy that problem.
Is there a way to keep my cat from going anywhere near the road? She used to stay strictly in the back because the traffic noise scared her, but now it doesn't seem to faze her.
I am terrified that she'll get hit by a car and killed. That's what happened on New Year's Day to the best cat I've ever had, and I don't think I could take it again. I'd appreciate any suggestions. -- S.R., Santa Rosa, Calif.
A: I bet you can guess what my suggestion will be. I also bet you won't like it. But the chances of your cat ending up dead are very high, and the only way to reduce the risk is to make yours an "indoor-only" pet.
Yes, your cat will hate it at first. Yes, you'll hate her carrying on, begging and crying to go out. But in time she will come to accept her new life, and it can be a happy one.
Converting an indoor-outdoor cat to an indoor-only is easy in theory but usually not in practice. The biggest problem is resolve. Once you make the decision to keep your cat in, you must resolve to ignore her demands to be let out. Every time you let her out because you can't stand her begging any more, you teach her a lesson: If I yowl louder, I get my way. When she learns that, you'd better lay in a supply of ear plugs and aspirin. You're going to need them.
If you don't let her out, she'll eventually give up asking. Provide her with a cat tree, lots of toys and attention. Consider a screened-in patio or tethered time outside with you. (Never leave a tethered cat unattended.)
More cats than ever before are living happy and certainly longer lives inside. Given your situation, your cat should probably be one of them.
Q: Is it advantageous to have a Siberian husky shaved for the summer? -- M.I., via e-mail
A: It's not necessary or even useful to shave longhaired dogs for the hottest part of the year. The only thing you'll really accomplish is making your lovely dog ugly.
Keep your pet clean and well-brushed, and provide ample shade and water. Better yet: Keep your pet in the same air-conditioned comfort you enjoy.
The only time shaving a longhaired pet is really necessary is when mats get out of control, and then a buzz cut is the humane option to tugging and pulling on those painful fur lumps.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies" and "Cats for Dummies," and is affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or e-mail to Write2Gina(at)aol.com.
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