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Heartworm – deadly threat to dogs in the community

By MELISSA BILL - | Mar 3, 2021


The Gulf Coast Humane Society continues to see a rise in Lee County dogs infected with the heartworm parasite. The disease comes from the bit of a mosquito named Dirofilaria immitis, or commonly referred to the “dog heartworm.”

Lee County Mosquito Control warns that due to Florida’s warm weather cycle, Lee County a breeding ground for eight out of the 16 species of mosquitoes that can act as hosts for heartworms.

Rescues including Gulf Coast Humane Society are seeing their share of canines coming in infected with the disease.

“We have always had a struggle with heartworm. Part of the reason is that many people move down here from up north where it’s cold longer. Up north, owners only need to have their dogs on heartworm prevention a couple months out of the year. Then they move here to Florida where mosquitoes are present all year around. This means that heartworm prevention is crucial for all 12 months of the year,” Brian Wierima, Gulf Coast Humane Society Community Relations Coordinator explained.

Wierima stresses that it doesn’t matter whether a dog is kept inside or outside.

“It only takes one mosquito to get in the house that’s carrying the heartworm parasite and it only takes one bite to get infected,” Wierima said. “The cost to keep your dog protected far outweighs the cost of treatment. It’s only $15 to $20 a month to keep your animals on prevention while heartworm treatments can last 7 to 9 months. The shot they have to give them is very painful for the animal.”

According to the American Heartworm Society, a single bite from an infected mosquito can transfer heartworm to a dog. Once infected, the animal goes through a very long and agonizing process. In the progressive state of heartworm, dogs begin to start coughing and vomiting, are slight of breath, and experience weight loss. Left untreated it will eventually kill the host dog.

The AHS reports that the common treatment used to kill heartworms is melarsomine, which is FDA-approved for treatment of adult heartworms in dogs.

Patients are also pre-medicated with Heartgard for 2-3 months prior to treatment to eliminate some of the tissue stages of the heartworms.

“We get rescues that are infected as well as dogs that have been homeless for two to three weeks outside,” Wierima said. “When the GCHS takes in heartworm positive dogs, we continue the treatments even after their adoption. Those treatments usually cost between $800-$900 and is very expensive. That’s been a big cost for the Gulf Coats Humane Society since annually between 20-30% of our dogs we intake are heartworm positive. “

According to Wierima, unfortunately many of the dogs GCHS takea in infected with heartworm would not have a chance for adoption without help getting the necessary treatments.

“We are able to do this through grants we get in, but funds do run low. When that happens, we might have a hard time taking in dogs or animals with heartworm. GCHS executive director Jennifer Galloway works hard to keep getting those grants in, which allows us to keep taking these animals in,” Wierima said.

GCHS suggest that anyone who moves down to Florida from the north go to their vet as soon as possible and get their dog tested. Once cleared, to get their pet immediately on heartworm prevention. AHS also recommends year-round prevention of heartworm nationwide, not just warm-weather states like Florida.

Heartworm is not transmitted from dog to dog. It’s only transmitted from the bite of an infected mosquito. While cats can get heartworm, it’s very rare.

Gulf Coast Humane Society is a regional organization dedicated to helping companion pets find their forever homes, no matter how long it takes. GCHS provides an adoption center, spay-neuter and veterinary clinic, as well as education and awareness to the public about the welfare of homeless pets.

Since the start of 2021, GCHS has already adopted out 459 rescues.

For more information on heartworm visit http://www.heartwormsociety.org/

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the preferred treatment drug.