HARLINGEN — The unbridled love dogs show their owners isn’t always returned in kind.
A major killer of dogs are heartworms, an infection which can easily be prevented with vet checkups and monthly doses of preventive medicine.
Texas is one of the leading states in a category nobody wants to be in: Highest number of reported heartworm cases.
Found in the Rio Grande Valley and the ranchlands are some of the highest concentrations of reported heartworm cases in both the state and the nation.
“A lot of it is because of our climate,” said Kathryn O. Dittman, a veterinarian who practices at the Altas Palmas Animal Clinic. “We don’t have a big winter, and heartworms being carried by mosquitoes, we’ll have mosquitoes biting our dogs in December.
“That’s one of the curses of living in such a beautiful climate,” she added.
The most recent study of heartworm cases comes from the American Heartworm Society, which every three years surveys thousands of clinics and animal shelters across the country to determine the number of heartworm incidents reported and where the hotspots are located.
Mike Vickers, Falfurrias vet
I just put three big dogs through heartworm treatment this morning — it’s a big problem.”
“The average number of dogs diagnosed per clinic in 2016 rose by 21.7 percent over 2013 numbers when our last survey was conducted,” says AHS president and veterinarian Dr. Christopher Rehm. “While the distribution of heartworm cases hasn’t changed dramatically since we surveyed veterinary practices three years ago, the average number of heartworm-positive dogs per clinic has increased.”
Heartworm disease is a serious and potentially fatal disease in dogs and sometimes cats in the United States and other parts of the world.
It is caused by foot-long worms that live in the heart, lungs and associated blood vessels of affected pets, causing severe lung disease, heart failure and damage to other organs in the body.
Heartworm disease affects dogs, cats and ferrets, but heartworms also live in other mammalian species, including wolves, coyotes, foxes, sea lions and — in rare instances — humans.
Heartworms can’t be transmitted from pet to pet, but must instead go through a mosquito vector. There are an estimated 70-plus species of mosquito capable of carrying the disease.
Mike Vickers operates a veterinary clinic near Falfurrias, and also sits on the board of the Texas Animal Health Commission.
In the ranchlands, he deals with heartworms — a lot.
“I just put three big dogs through heartworm treatment this morning — it’s a big problem,” he said last week.
The average cost of heartworm preventive for dogs is anywhere from $6 to $25 per month, depending on the size of the animal and whether the preventive also protects against fleas, ticks and intestinal parasites. Treatment of a dog after heartworms have been discovered can cost more than $1,000 a year.
Many dog owners are reluctant to buy heartworm preventive medicine because they regard it as expensive.
“So’s dog food,” Dittman said. “But you can’t have a dog without feeding him dog food. You shouldn’t have a dog in the Valley without having him on heartworm preventive.
“We have a saying around here, and this isn’t scientifically backed up, but if you have a dog who lives here in the Valley and they’re primarily an outside dog, after three years you’ve got about an 80 to 90 percent chance of that dog being heartworm positive if they’re not on a preventive,” Dittman added.
Dittman says there are a fairly large number of heartworm preventives available at different price points. All of them should be purchased with a prescription from a vet.
“There’s a good reason for that,” she said. “It’s not just ‘cause we’re trying to hoard this.
“Some of the heartworm preventives, if your dog already has heartworms, and then they get heartworm preventive, it could cause really bad adverse reactions,” Dittman said. “We always like you to come and test dogs before they’re put on heartworm preventives.”
Canine heartworm infection is widely distributed in the United States and is found in all states including Hawaii, with a few cases reported in Alaska.
The highest infection rates in dogs not maintained on heartworm preventive occur roughly within 150 miles of the Atlantic coast from South Texas to New Jersey and along the Mississippi River and its major tributaries.
Local vets say prospective dog owners need to plan in advance before acquiring a pet to provide proper veterinary care which includes buying heartworm preventives.
“If you can’t afford a rabies shot, you can’t afford heartworm medicine, and you can’t afford to spay or neuter your pet, then you really shouldn’t have a dog,” Dittman said.
“You don’t have a right to own a pet,” she added. “It’s a responsibility. You can be poor and own a pet and be a responsible pet owner if you take care of those three things.”
STAGE 1: During the first stage of heartworm disease, dogs generally will not have any symptoms at all, although you may notice a slight cough.
STAGE 2: Stage two is accompanied by moderate symptoms such as a lingering cough or fatigue after exercise. The symptoms may now be advanced enough for you to detect them.
STAGE 3: By stage three, the disease is having a real impact on your dog’s health. Dogs will continue to cough, will experience fatigue after exercise, may be reluctant to exercise, and can have trouble breathing. During this stage, dogs may also cough up blood.
STAGE 4: Very visible heartworm symptoms. At this stage dogs are reluctant to exercise, tired after exercising, and will exhibit a cough. Dogs will probably experience trouble breathing as well. Untreated, this stage of heartworm disease can lead to death.