HEALTHY PET: Helping dogs avoid heartworm and tick-borne diseases

The owner of Ginger (above) contacted Louisa-based Animal Care Assistance Program for help with heartworm and tick-borne diseases.

As the weather gets warmer this spring and dogs spend more time outside, their risk for contracting heartworm or tick-borne diseases will increase. These conditions can be prevented, though it can be costly. 

Heartworm and Lyme Disease, the best-known tick-borne illness, are fairly common in Central Virginia. Karin Magno, president of Louisa-based Animal Care Assistance Program, said her group has recently seen an increase in dogs that show symptoms of both diseases. This does not necessarily indicate an abnormal increase in cases: The dogs may have been sick for a while and remained asymptomatic until recently. 

Ginger, a 12-year-old honey-colored dog in Louisa, is one such case. (Her name has been changed to protect the owner’s identity) Ginger’s owner contacted ACAP when the dog had difficulty breathing; she tested positive for Heartworm and two tick-borne diseases, Lyme Disease and Ehrlichiosis. 

Heartworms are actual worms about a foot long that target their host’s heart, lungs and connecting blood vessels, eating away at muscle tissue. When first infected, dogs with heartworms may not show any signs, but symptoms will worsen over time. Common symptoms may include fatigue, cough and weight loss. If left untreated, heartworms can lead to heart failure and death. 

According to the American Heartworm Society, mosquitos are key in heartworms’ life cycle, transporting them between hosts. If a mosquito bites a dog, fox or coyote infected with heartworms, it also picks up baby worms in the animal’s bloodstream. Within two weeks, these baby worms mature into “infective larvae” and are ready for their new, preferably canine, host. At this stage, when the mosquito bites another dog like Ginger, it deposits the heartworm larvae on the dog’s skin, which then enters its body through the mosquito bite wound. Once inside the dog’s body, heartworms flourish and can live for up to seven years. 

Tick-borne diseases are transmitted through bites from certain species of ticks. Lyme Disease is a bacterial illness that can cause fever, joint swelling and stiffness, joint pain and limping. If allowed to progress, it can lead to kidney failure, cardiac distress and neurological effects. 

Ehrlichiosis is also transmitted through tick bites, specifically from the Brown Dog Tick species. Dogs with this condition may have a fever, swollen lymph nodes, difficulty breathing and spontaneous bleeding. If left untreated at the beginning stage, it may go undetected until symptoms worsen to anemia, blindness, swollen limbs, neurological problems and lameness. Both Lyme Disease and Ehrlichiosis can be fatal. 

Heartworms and tick-borne diseases are treatable and can be prevented with medication and repellent collars, but each comes with setbacks. Treatment for heartworms, for example, is expensive and some dogs might not survive it. 

“If they [dogs] have other underlying health issues, they’re really not even a candidate for the heartworm treatment,” Magno said. 

Addressing Ginger’s heartworms would cost the owner around $1,300 with ACAP’s discount. Ginger is also terminally ill and older, meaning she would likely not survive treatment. 

“It is very, very hard on the dog’s body,” Magno said. “It’s a tough position for an owner to be facing because they feel guilty when they find out that there is preventive medicine out there.” 

Heartworm medication can protect dogs, but it can be expensive for households with lower incomes or multiple pets, costing between $35 and $40 a month per animal. 

“It’s very upsetting because I listen to clients who are just beating themselves up, and it’s heartbreaking,” Magno said. “They’re going to lose their pet that’s going to suffer. [Heartworms] is not a pleasant way to leave this earth.”

ACAP helps lower-income pet owners manage some of their medical costs, but funding for preventive care is limited. Magno said ACAP recently ordered a large number of Seresto flea and tick collars for animals that spend a lot of time outdoors, which can help prevent tick-borne diseases. These collars last between seven to eight months and cost approximately $60 each. 

ACAP is not currently in a position to assist clients with the heartworm medication costs. They recently applied for a grant through the Grey Muzzle Foundation to fund preventive care and treatment for senior dogs and will hear back about the status of their application in the coming weeks. 

Dog owners are encouraged to watch out for symptoms of heartworm and tick-borne diseases, go in for regular checkups, and opt for preventive options if they can afford it. Owners can also search their pets for ticks after they spend time outside and remove the bugs immediately. Animal care providers and advocates encourage people thinking about adopting a pet to consider the costs of medical care. 

“[Medical care is] another thing that people need to really think long and hard about when they are considering getting an animal, because it’s not just food and water and love that they need,” Magno said. 

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