From Dr. Savita Wadhwani, owner and veterinarian, Wells Branch Pet and Bird Clinic:
What is Heartworm?
How Do Heartworms Affect the Body?First of all I want to clear up a confusion for you. Worms. There are lots of different kinds. Of course there are the ones out there in the earth. Those aren’t what we’re talking about. We’re talking about worms in the body, worms that they can have in their intestines, and that’s usually what we just call “worms,” intestinal worms, the ones in your stomach, in your intestines, things like that. Then there is a specific type of worm called heartworm that dogs and cats get that the worm actually lives in the heart. It’s a pretty long worm. It’s about ten to fourteen inches and it can live inside the heart. So let’s talk about heartworms first.
They live in the heart. They live in the blood vessel. It’s a pretty big one, depending on what size the animal is, the blood vessel that goes from the heart to the lungs. It lives there and what it does, let’s say the blood vessel is much larger than the worm, one is not going to do much in that blood vessel. It’s not going to block anything and cause too many problems. But let’s say there are ten of them in there, and it’s blocked up that blood vessel. Now the heart has to pump the blood into the lungs through this really big obstacle of worms. The heart can do it. The heart can do a really good job. Your body is really great. A dog’s body is designed really well. You would be really amazed at the things a body can work around.
And that’s one of those things. A dog has heartworms, the lungs, the body says “Hey! I’m not getting enough blood!” and the heart will work harder. It will pump harder, faster, whatever is needed to get the blood into the lungs. Well, it can do that. It can do that for a short time or a long time but eventually it’s going to stop being able to do that. And that’s what I tell my client.
Look. Let’s say you’re working somewhere and all of a sudden one of the guys that you work with quit and your boss comes up to you and says, “You know, I think you can handle both jobs. I’m not going to hire someone else right now; I’m just going to let you do it.” Well at first maybe you’re getting paid more or whatever you go, “Ok I’ll do that. I’ll work a little bit harder.” So then the next week four more people quit and the boss says “You can do all of that” and you’re like “Ok, I can do that,” and you do that. You work hard. You really work hard, right? How long can you do that for? Until you finally go to your boss and go, “You know what? I’m working too hard. I quit.”
Well, eventually that heart’s going to do that. We don’t want it to get to that point. We want to treat those heartworms and get rid of them. And the treatment quite honestly can be a little rough on dogs. We as veterinarians make it as easy on dogs as we can but it can be really rough on them. We have to give them a really toxic substance, just the right amount to kill the worms and yet little enough so that it doesn’t hurt the dog. We dose it just right so that it kills the worms but now there are dead worms in that dog’s heart. What happens to them? Well, the body does a really good job of that, too. The worms eventually disintegrate. The body absorbs all of the protein from that somehow or another, but in the mean time you’ve got dead worms in the heart that are disintegrating , there’s all these little bits of worm everywhere, and what you’ve got to do after the heartworm treatment, and this is the hardest part, believe it or not, the hardest part of the heartworm treatment, it’s the hardest part that people have trouble dealing with, is their dog has to be confined, quiet, with as least excitement and activity as possible for about a month or six weeks after that initial heartworm treatment because the heartworm treatment is only about two days, but now your dog has to be quiet for a month.
That’s how you have to treat your dog. He can’t run up and greet you at the door for a month. You can’t let him run around the house or the back yard for a month or six weeks. You can’t do that. It’s hard. So look, let’s not get to that point. Let’s try to prevent it.
Prevention is really easy. There are medications that you can give your dog just once a month. It used to be every day. When I had my first dog, it was every day. I had to make sure that dog had his pill every day when I was twelve. Oh my goodness. But now it’s once a month. Come on. It’s really easy. Put a little sticker on your calendar and go and give your dog a heartworm pill, or Advantage Multi, which is a spot-on treatment, there are others that you can put liquid on the back like we do flea control. And you treat your dog, it controls the heartworms, keeps him from getting them for a whole month, and you just put it on, every single month regularly.
Continuous Heartworm Check-Ups
Then we also still, even if your dog is on heartworm medication like that, I like to test your dog every year. The reason is, hey, what if something slipped by? The heartworm medication I use is very very effective. Very close to one hundred percent effective. But look, I don’t want to take a chance with your dog. He’s your best friend. He’s your baby. He’s your companion, so I want you to come in once a year, get your dog tested whether he’s on heartworm prevention or not, and let’s just make sure everything is ok with him.