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Underdog Blog

Heartworm Awareness Month

Sabrina Ortiz

By Claire Oliver

Looking at this dog, would you think he’s heartworm positive?

Just looking at him, I wouldn’t. He appears beautiful, strong and happier than a lark. But I know this dog. I helped write his story. I can tell you that he is incredibly handsome, resilient and happy. But he does, in fact, have heartworms.

Boone is a seven-year-old Treeing Walker Coonhound who was rescued in 2015. Before my husband and I took him in I knew nothing about heartworm disease and am still by no means an expert. But I fiercely love my dog. A dog who I watched suffer immensely because of something I knew so little about. I know more now than I did then because of our journey through treatment. So, I’m writing to share that story and shed light on a disease so deadly, yet even more so preventable.

Boone was found emaciated and malnourished in West Tennessee, where the inescapable heat widely attracts heartworm carriers: the mosquito. Foot-long worms were living in his heart, weakening his body every day. Although the worms weren’t visible to us, they made their presence known in his labored breathing, the blood on the floor when he coughed, and his fatigue. Even though he made desperate attempts to fight it.

Watching someone suffer is heart-breaking. It’s no different when that someone has four-legs. Not only does the disease itself bring tremendous heartache, but the treatment is equally as trying and consists of several steps (accompanied by an emotional rollercoaster).

Step 1: Prep Work. We started Boone’s four-month heartworm treatment journey in December of 2015 beginning with a twice-daily dose of Doxycycline for a month. Doxy is an antibiotic to combat bacteria that is released when the worms begin dying. Not all vets require this step, but we wanted to take the extra precaution.

Step 2: Drug Injections. Boone’s first injection in January was administered into his lumbar, or back, muscles. The first month’s injection left him unusually sore. So sore that the next day I left him for work lying on the floor instead of his usual tail wagging, staring me down from the window, jubilant self. I couldn’t get him outside to relieve himself, or even convince him to get up and eat. Two hours later, I had the gut feeling something wasn’t right. I drove back to the house to find Boone exactly where I left him: lying on the floor in visible pain. To this day, I don’t know how I was able to coax him off the floor and into the front seat of my 350 Z. I’d like to think it’s because he trusted me, but at that point his options were limited. His face, squished on the dash, gave me the look like he’d died and gone to you know where as we sped off to the vet’s office. The trip resulted in steroids to ease his pain and the Abba song ‘Money, Money, Money’ playing in my head. Our investment in heartworm treatment was increasing what seemed like every week.

In February, Boone’s second and third injections were administered together. He was given twice the dose at one time to kill off any remaining worms. During this more concentrated round of injections, he was required to stay overnight at the vet’s office to be monitored for any negative reaction.  

Step 3: “You Want Me To Do What?” The most critical, yet challenging part of heartworm treatment is the “quiet time”. Hands down. We were told that during the months Boone received the injections his activity level must be strictly limited. But it doesn’t stop there. Additionally, to be safe we would need to restrict his activity for the two months that followed the injections. That’s four months total of restricted activity! No exercise from January – April. Only taking him outside to potty. No walks or anything to excite him.  Any dog owner can empathize with me here. How would he not go stir-crazy? How would I not go crazy?

After the initial shock, fear set in. The vet didn’t just tell us this to make our lives miserable. There’s a critical reason why. As the medicine works and the worms die, fragments of dead worms can block blood flow through the vessels. Too much exercise increases blood flow to blocked areas, causing capillaries to rupture as the body tries to pump blood through the blocked vessels. In terms that I understood, increased heart rate could result in death. And a quick one.

The ‘what if’ was enough to haunt me to this day. Thankfully, we made it through the four-months of restricted activity, and our lives slowly but surely resumed as normal.

Step 4: The Retest. It wasn’t until six months later that we could retest Boone for heartworm disease. I had the retest day in June marked on my calendar for what seemed like a very long time. After months of heartache, worry, vet visits and steep vet bills, I was confident we’d be walking out of there with our heads held high and a piece of paper that read Heartworm Negative. Blood was drawn, Boone was pacing and I had another gut-wrenching feeling that something wasn’t right. It could have been the look on our vet’s face as he walked back in the room, or the way he made small talk before addressing the test results. A piece of paper with our future sat on the desk right in front of him. The elephant in the room. Finally, he delivered the news that Boone had again tested heartworm positive.

It was all I could do not to cry. Not to feel completely defeated. Not to feel so sorry for Boone and myself, admittedly. Our vet shared that out of the 100 dogs he had treated for heartworms Boone was the only case in which he retested positive, and we don’t know for certain why.

So much for a happy ending, right?

Although it wasn’t the major feat we’d hoped for, it was still a victory.  We learned the treatment killed off a significant portion of the adult worms, so there’s an incredibly fewer number and the likelihood they will eventually die off in time. They also no longer have the ability to reproduce because of the monthly preventative. Boone no longer coughs, feels fatigued or struggles to breathe. I can confidently say that he is a very healthy (and happy) hound. Once defined by the worms living in his heart, he is not any longer. And for that, I am grateful. That’s our victory.

April is National Heartworm Awareness Month. Our story is certainly not to scare or deter anyone from heartworm treatment, but it is worth sharing that this costly treatment is no simple matter. Prevention, prevention, prevention is key! For a disease so complex, the preventative is simple. A monthly heartworm preventative averages at $5-$15 per month (we use Interceptor Plus, but there are several on the market to get the job done). Compare that to heartworm treatment which averages $400-$1,500. 

I will forever have a soft spot in my heart for the animals who are heartworm positive. Many of them, like Boone, are underdogs whose health was not made a priority. We all share a common goal for our animals: to live out their best life in good health. After a long road we’re face to face with that goal, and I’m happy to report that Boone no longer suffers.

Except for the occasional stomach ache from too many hotdogs. And if he could talk, he’d tell you it’s worth it.

Phoebe & Friends Photography

*Always test an animal for heartworms and consult with a veterinarian. Please note that heartworm treatments differ based on a situational basis and veterinary recommendation.