Spring is officially here and April is National Heartworm Awareness Month.
So today, let’s dive into this scary disease and how to prevent it in our dogs…naturally.
What is Heartworm Disease and What Causes It?
Heartworm disease is caused by a parasitic worm called Dirofilaria immitis, spread through the bite of an infected mosquito. They are nasty buggers and use the dog as its host, maturing, mating and producing offspring inside the heart, lung and other associated blood vessels.
Here’s how it transmits from one infected dog to another. It’s mostly about the mosquito. When a mosquito bites an infected dog, the tiny, immature worms, called microfilariae, are transmitted into the mosquito via the blood. Over the next 10 – 14 days, that microfilariae will develop into an infectious larvae, so when that mosquito bites another dog, those infectious worms will be deposited onto that new host’s skin and enter its body through the bite wound. Then, it takes about 6-7 months for the larvae to mature into adult worms, the female of which can be a foot long, and can live in a dog for 5-7 years and a cat for 2-3 years. Because they can live so long, you can begin to see how each new mosquito season can bring more and more worms into a dog or cat host. And, if gone unchecked, the worms can cause severe lung disease, heart failure and damage to other organs in the body.
In cats, who are not good hosts for the worms, most larvae don’t live long enough to mature to adults. But, cats can get what’s called Heartworm Associated Respiratory Disease (HARD), and it can kill them, since even one adult worm dying off is very dangerous to the cat.
Symptoms of Heartworm Disease in Dogs & Cats
- mild persistent cough
- reluctance to exercise/fatigue after moderate activity
- decreased appetite
- weight loss
- asthma-like attacks
- periodic vomiting
- lack of appetite
- weight loss
If you notice any of these symptoms, and while especially in cats, they can be signs of many different things, get your pet tested, just to be on the safe side.
The Specific Circumstances Under Which Heartworm Disease Can Happen:
This is important to register, because it’s not that easy for a dog or cat to get heartworm disease. Here’s the criteria for it to possibly occur:
- The temperature needs to stay above 57 degrees for 8 to 30 days.
- A mosquito has to bite a dog that already has larvae in its bloodstream.
- That mosquito has to then bite your dog or cat 8-30 days later.
- You must give the heartworm preventative medication within 6 weeks of the mosquito bite to kill microfilaria or larvae in the blood and prevent the larvae from growing to adulthood.
I’m going to be looking for the do no harm way to protect my dogs and cat and, I will never tell you don’t do something. I’ll just give you the information to make educated choices.
Let’s start with the conventional heartworm drugs, only for dogs, which are not preventative, they kill off heartworm larvae only in a dog.
Here’s a list of the most common ones and their side effects (courtesy of Dogs Naturally Magazine):
HEARTGARD and TriHeartPlus (ivermectin):
Depression/lethargy, vomiting, anorexia, diarrhea, mydriasis, ataxia staggering, convulsions and hypersalivation.
INTERCEPTOR (milbemycin oxime):
Reports the above reactions plus weakness.
SENTINEL (milbemycin oxime):
Reports vomiting, depression/lethargy, pruritus, urticaria, diarrhea, anorexia, skin congestion, ataxia, convulsions, hypersalivation and weakness.
REVOLUTION® (selamectin), Topical Parasiticide For Dogs and Cats:
Pre-approval reactions of vomiting, loose stool or diarrhea with or without blood, anorexia, lethargy, salivation, tachypnea, and muscle tremors. Post-approval experience included the above plus pruritis, urticaria, erythema, ataxia, fever, and rare reports of death and seizures in dogs.
Severe allergic reactions (anaphylaxis): facial swelling, itching, difficulty breathing, collapse; lethargy (sluggishness); not eating or losing interest in food; any change in activity level; seizures; vomiting and/or diarrhea (with and without blood); weight loss; pale gums, increased thirst or urination, weakness, bleeding, bruising; rare instances of death. The maker withdrew this drug from the market in 2004 because of deaths. But they’ve brought it back. And now then even have ProHeart 12 too!
The way all of these meds work is by introducing small amounts of pesticide into your dog on a regular basis. As I mentioned above, they do not prevent heartworm; they kill off the larvae in the host animal, preventing them from growing into adult worms. They will not kill adult worms already in your dog.
The two main ingredients in most heartworm medications are ivermectin, a cattle dewormer that is very lethal to Australian Cattle Dogs and Collies; and pyrantel pamoate (both in the drug class called anthelmintics – basically dewormers). Ivermectin is derived from the bacterium Streptomyces avermitilis and kills by interfering with the target animal’s nervous system. Hence, some of the side effects that are nervous system-related you see above.
What I want you to know is this: heartworms are becoming more and more resistant to these drugs. Vets response to this is to recommend treating year round; to give your dog MORE of the drugs the worms are becoming resistant to. Does that make sense?
There are quite a few natural options used as heartworm preventatives, so they are going to make your dog or cat’s internal environment much less attractive to biting insects like infected mosquitoes.
But first, this is important.
Why Your Dog or Cat’s Immune System is the Key to Natural Prevention
The most important takeaway here is that prevention, first and foremost, happens when your dog or cat’s immune system is strong. A strong immune system can fight off any infestation of worms, heart or otherwise, as well as disease.
Many dogs or cats have heartworms in their system; the strong immune system never allow them to proliferate out of control.
What makes a strong immune system? It’s really very clear:
- a fresh food diet, preferably raw
- avoiding immune system weakening vaccines
- avoiding immune suppressive drugs when possible, like the “anti” drugs – antibiotics, anti-inflamatory, etc.
- lots of love
- fresh air and exercise
We’ll go more into some of these specifically in other posts.
If you’re feeling at all confused or overwhelmed, don’t jump off the cliff! There are options that work; products you can give your dog or cat that will make them much less hospitable to these nasty disease-carrying mosquitoes. And, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Starting slowly with building up your pet’s immune system is better than doing nothing at all. Finding natural ways to prevent or treat illness is a great start.
I’ll start with what I do with my three dogs.
I use a product called Heart Worm Free Clean Heart (HWF), made by a company called Amber Naturalz. It contains a proprietary blend of herbs that repels insects and strengthens your pet’s heart muscle, supports the blood and heart and helps the body detox foreign contaminates.
The ingredients are: Organic Black Seed, Organic licorice Root Extract, Organic Apricot Kernel Extract – 108 mg; Organic Hawthorn Berries (a long-used herb to strengthen and tonify the heart) – 41 mg; Organic Garlic (a great biting insect repellent) – 12 mg; Organic Sheep Sorrel – 10 mg; Citrus Blend – 2 mg. Also, Beef Flavoring, Filtered Water, Organic Grain Alcohol USP 17- 23% by Volume.
I’ve used HWF for 3 years now and am very happy with it. Once you administer daily for a couple of weeks, you then transition to one week on, one week off, ongoing. Since we live in South Florida, one of the capitals of year-round fleas, ticks and other biting insects, I use this product all year.
And, on the off weeks, I finely chop up garlic and add to their breakfast. There is a lot of misinformation out there about garlic and dogs. Garlic is ONLY toxic to dogs in large quantities. I give my 7lb Chihuahua, Ani, about 1/4 of a medium sized clove, my 11 lb Sophie a little more than that and my 18 lb Jasper about a half a medium sized clove. I’ve been doing this, again, for about 2-3 years. No problems.
Here is another product, formulated by a holistic vet, Dr. Jenifer Preston, that is used as both a preventative and treatment for heartworm. It’s called HVE Parasite Formula, and is available for dogs and cats. This is the #1 wormer Dr. Preston uses in her practice. It will not prevent mosquitoes from biting but it will make your dog or cat an inhospitable host for the larvae and treat worms already present.
Ingredients include: Quisqualis indica – Chinese honeysuckle; Omphaliae lapidescens – Chinese herb to treat tapeworms; Torreya grandis – evergreen tree, anti-oxidant; Arecha catechu – betel nut-used to treat many types of worms; Dryopteris crassirhizoma – made from a fern; Cucurbita moschata (pumpkin seeds); Allium sativum (garlic).
Finally, Dr. Bob Goldstein’s company Earth Animal, makes a powder you can add to your dog or cat’s food called Nature’s Protection.
The yeast free formula’s ingredients are: Alfalfa, Garlic, Spirulina, Kelp, Papaya, Neem, Nettles, Hawthorne; the other formula’s is: Brewer?s Dried Yeast, Calcium Phosphate, Garlic, Rice Bran, Dried Chicken Liver, dl-Methionine, Calcium Carbonate, Zinc Amino Acid Chelate, Thiamine HCL (Vitamin B1), Pyridoxine HCL (Vitamin B6).
I used this product for a few months, while I was using HWC, but didn’t need both so I chose HWC to keep as part of my pet’s health plan. Both are good.
FYI, I do not have any arrangements with any of these brands.
There are more and you can Google natural heartworm prevention to see them. But, these are ones I like.
The Importance of Testing for Heartworm
Whether you choose conventional or natural means of heartworm protection or prevention, it’s important to get your pet tested, regularly. There are 3 types of tests and they’re all not created equal:
This is the typical test your vet does. Here’s what it can and can’t do:
- It can only identify adult female heartworms, even though both male and female can contribute to heartworm disease.
- Heartworm antigen can be in the blood within 5 months. But most dogs won’t show antigen until 7 months after infection.
- These tests also may not pick up a low worm burden. If your dog only has one or two female worms, the test has a 30-40% false negative rate.
- Some dogs won’t show antibody at all due to “antigen-antibody complexes” in the blood
As a result of these limitations, your vet may also give the…
This will test if there are microfilariae in your dog’s system. Sometimes, there are false negatives on the antigen test and this compensates for that. A positive for this test tells you there are mature heartworms in your dog.
This is a little known test, even to some vets. This uses PCR or Polymerase Chain Reaction technology. What that means is it test for heartworm DNA in your dog’s blood. This test needs to be ordered by a vet and is not widely available. There’s a testing facility in Canada called HealthGene that gives it; I’m not sure where else. This is the most accurate test to do.
Since it takes 4-5 months from when your pet gets infected by a mosquito bite until the larvae grow into adults, testing every 4 months is a good idea to catch anything early.
- is caused by a parasitic worm called Dirofilaria immitis, spread through the bite of an infected mosquito
- there are strict conditions under which your dog or cat would contract heartworm disease
- there are conventional and holistic/natural options to prevent/treat heartworm infestation
- all good health begins with a strong immune system and how to get there
- heartworm testing is important to catch things early
Hope this was helpful and please come back to me with any questions, concerns or things you’re interested in knowing about.
To their health…