2007-07-11 / Columnists

Pets, Pets, Pets

by Joanne Anderson

Nikko, black 
            Lab mix left and Noah, Chow mix, right Nikko, black Lab mix left and Noah, Chow mix, right Heartworm is like "Jaws". Just when you think you know who is safe, the facts change....By now all dog owners should realize that heartworm happens. Mosquitoes spread the disease. However, according to the American Heartworm Society (AHS), despite the deadly threat to unprotected dogs, only 59% of dog owners regularly administer preventative. Veterinarians are rethinking the notion that just dogs are at risk. Recent findings show that heartworm kills cats too. Mosquitoes are still the culprits but feline heartworm affects cats differently.

In cats researchers have discovered that symptoms such as heavy or fast breathing often diagnosed as feline asthma or allergic bronchitis may actually be caused by heartworm in the larval or adult phase, even if the cat tests negative for heartworm. The term HARD (Heartworm Associated Respiratory Disease) is the new clinical acronym for this feline syndrome. Additional symptoms, including coughing, blindness, and weight loss, mimic other conditions. Heartworm's difficult to diagnose. Many cats infected don't show any distress. The first sign, unfortunately, can be sudden death. It's preventable, yet presently only 5 percent of US cat owners safeguard their cats.

Last spring Dr. Thomas Nelson, president of the AHS and the late Dr. Jim Richards director of Cornell Feline Health Center launched the KNOW Heartworms public awareness campaign to dispel the myths and misunderstandings about the disease in cats. They brought their urgent message to as many colleagues and cat lovers as possible. (Sadly, I was supposed to meet with Dr. Richards to learn more the week he tragically died in a motorcycle accident.) The 5 main myths are:

  • Dog vs. Cat: Dogs are more susceptible but heartworm infects cats also. Both are at risk wherever there are mosquitoes. Infected animals might not show signs in early stages. Cats typically have fewer, smaller worms invading pulmonary blood vessels but even immature worms can cause problems. There are a variety of effective preventives- daily and monthly tablets, chewables, and monthly topicals- for dogs as well as cats. Treatment, though multi-stepped with relative danger, is approved for infected dogs; but none so far for cats.
  • Indoor vs. Outdoor Cats: The risk is greater for cats outside but indoor cats are just as vulnerable as outdoor animals. In a North Carolina study, 28 percent of all cats diagnosed were strictly indoor pets.
  • Heart Disease is a Misnomer: Canine heartworm tends to compromise the heart, lungs, and kidneys in dogs; whereas feline heartworm is primarily a lung disease where initial signs are often mistaken for other respiratory illnesses.
  • Adult Heartworms vs. Larvae: In cats heartworm larvae at all life stages can cause serious health issues.
  • Diagnosis: Accurate testing is trickier in cats where negative antigen and antibody tests do not automatically rule out heartworm.
  • For more information visit www.heart-√üwormsociety.org or my archived 6/08/06 Beacon or 6/07/06 Post column link. We live on Long Island, a mosquito Mecca. Since heartworm is prevalent in the unprotected (41 percent of the owned; 100 percent of the homeless) dog population around here, the parasitic probability also exists to harm cats. Consider shielding your precious cats from the disease too, but talk to your veterinarian first.

    Note: Recently I read unfair criticism singling out a town shelter for unknowingly adopting out a heartworm positive (HW+) dog. An irresponsible and oblivious public, not a town shelter, is to blame for the dog's illness. The more neglected the dog; the more likely to be heartworm infested. Finances and climate play a part. So many Katrina dogs had heartworm because they lived near the Gulf coast where infection rates approach 45 percent, were surrounded by dogs carrying larvae that could transmit to other dogs, and their owners were too poor to seek vet care.

    Right now on LI only one formerly municipal, now privatized East End shelter, heartworm tests on intake. Some others let the adopter pay for the test. The diagnosis would still be a surprise.

    All LI town shelter adoption policies have progressed compassionately over the last 25 years. Spay/neuter and adoption outreach are beginning to curtail over population. Thankfully, our pounds now hold dogs, even senior dogs, much longer than they have to by law. With prolonged stays comes the theoretical possibility that any dog could be sitting in a town shelter for months with hidden heartworm. Years ago many an owned dog would be euthanized immediately, a stray on the 8th day to make space for the influx.

    Last month I pulled a sweet, matted Chow for Chow Rescue. We're dealing with her heartworm discovered at their vet. Wasn't the first time a healthy looking dog fooled me; probably won't be the last. Real rescuers expect the worst and are thrilled when they dodge a medical bullet. Heartworm happens.

    Poster Dog Change of Adoption Venue this Week: Last Hope, Inc. is a small, non- profit rescue that takes special needs and long timer dogs from LI municipal shelters. There is only room for 10 at the Last Hope Dog Center adjoining Basic Vet Care, 642 Rt.109, Lindenhurst. (Private humane groups that rely on donations have the luxury of heartworm testing, treating infected dogs, and putting fosters on preventives. At the moment 1 Last Hope dog-"Patrick" -is being treated for heartworm.)

    Think of Last Hope as a halfway house for hounds. Featured here are 2 of my old friends originally from Babylon Shelter. "Noah" is a 4 yr. comical Chow mix who loves to play with toys; while "Nikko" is a 6 yr. portly black Lab mix who belonged to someone now homeless. Both like other dogs. Call (516)220-6695 to see them. See more at www.lasthopeanimal rescue.org.

  • "Tail of Woe Kittens"-"Panda" & "Niquey" (unique skunk clone)-12 week males, super lovable, FeLV/FIV tested, hand-raised. Mom and littermates were killed by a dog. Call (631)669-2099.
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