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Alyssa Samson/Medill

Regardless of size, breed, or age, no dog is immune from heartworm without preventative medication.

Squirmy news to protect pets this summer

by Alyssa Samson
May 23, 2012


Food and Drug Administration and Matt Miller, College of Veterinary Medicine, Texas A&M University

Heartworms can grow up to 12 inches long while festering in a dog's heart and lungs. Untreated, heartworm causes heart failure and death in dogs and cats.

dog 2

Courtesy of Leeann Plikuhn

Leeann Plikuhn of suburban Indian Head Park treats Chloe (left) and Bebe with heartworm preventatives every summer, even though she admits the cost is a little high.

Summer is a critical time for your pet’s health and skipping on heartworm medication is more hazardous than usual this year.

Most people already have enough bills without adding another prescription – especially if it’s for their pet. But when the veterinarian reminds you to renew your dog or cat's heartworm medication, heed the advice.

“We recommend your pet being on a heartworm preventative year-round,” said veterinarian Kristin Vyhnal, at the Chicago Veterinarian clinic. “A lot of people definitely think that heartworm is seasonal, so they don’t always remember to start the preventative soon enough.” 

A mosquito can pick up the young of an adult female heartworm when it bites an infected animal. Within the next two weeks, the young begin to mature into larvae within the mosquito. When the mosquito bites another dog or cat, the larvae enter into the wound and begin to cultivate into adult worms in your pet’s heart and lungs, according to the American Heartworm Society.

Imagine a mosquito bite this summer morphing into more than 30 worms festering in your pet's heart for five to seven years without any obvious symptoms. The worms begin to grow to lengths up to 12 inches and disrupt functions in the heart and lungs, eventually resulting in heart failure. This is usually what an infected dog will experience if not treated. 

The good news is that people are not susceptible to heartworm. And in 2007, the heartwork society reported fewer than 25 cases of heartworm in most of Illinois.

Still, the risks of this gruesome condition can be avoided with heartworm preventatives for cats and dogs.

Though Vyhnal said that heartworm is a larger risk in southern states, she said she anticipates a higher number of cases this year due to the mild winter and predicted outbursts of larger mosquito populations. 

The most common preventative consists of pills that contain Macrocyclic lactones – highly effective parasites that prevent the development of adult heartworms.

Heartworm preventatives can run about $100 a year, but Vyhnal emphasized that the expenses of treating an infected pet can costs much more. 

The treatments used after a pet already has a case of heartworm entails multiple injections of the drug Immiticide that kills the heartworms. However, the injections can costs hundreds of dollars - far more expensive than preventive medications - and do not always kill all the heartworms. 

Some infected pets may end up abandoned in places such as the Animal Welfare League where they are often at a diadvantage for adoption because of their infection.

“Most people don’t want them once they find out that the animal has heartworm,” said Veterinarian Technician Samantha Neeley at the Animal Welfare League in Chicago Ridge. “We do treat the heartworm, but we usually end up holding them until they go to a rescue clinic.”

As the cost of preventatives cause some pet owners to frantically search for cheaper alternatives, Vyhnal said topical treatments to thwart mosquito bites can end up costing even more money and they are not always effective. 

Leeann Plikuhn of Indian Head Park has two dogs, Bebe, a Morkie, and Chloe, a Silky Terrier. She said that she treats her dogs with the preventative every summer and the cost is definitely worth the protection. 

And, as Vyhnal put it, getting the heartworm preventative for this summer really comes down to how much you value the health of your pet.