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How is heartworm disease treated?

April is heartworm awareness month, but as long as there are mosquitoes around, it’s a disease to be mindful of all year long. Caused by a parasitic worm, heartworm disease gets transferred to dogs by infected mosquitoes and impacts thousands of dogs each year. It’s a quiet but serious disease that if untreated can result in severe lung disease, heart failure, other organ damage, or even death. That’s why heartworm treatment is so critical. So how exactly does heartworm treatment work? We’re going to break it down.

Treatment Requires a Vet’s Help

Jade graduates from heartworm treatment at Emancipet
This is Jade and her dad Albert! Jade has officially graduated heartworm treatment with her negative heartworm test 9 months after her final treatment at Emancipet!

A test is required to determine whether or not your dog is in fact heartworm disease positive – just a fancy way of saying they have it. Once a positive test is confirmed, our veterinarians (in alignment with the American Heartworm Society) recommend treating adult heartworm infections with 3 treatments (injections) of a drug called melarsomine. This treatment kills the adult heartworms quickly and reduces the amount of damage that they do to the heart and lungs. So as you can see, there’s just no way of skipping the vet when it comes to heartworm disease treatment. 

Now let’s talk a little more about the treatment itself.

Best Practices to Help Reduce Negative Side-Effects of Heartworm Treatment

It is important to note that the way drugs have different side-effects from person-to-person, heartworm treatment can have various side effects (some very serious) from dog-to-dog. To reduce the risk of negative side effects for your pet, our veterinarians recommend closely following these 3 guidelines:

  1. Rest for 60 days (ideally in a crate): Rest is the single most important factor to successful heartworm treatment. This means 4 weeks of strict rest for your dog after each melarsomine injection. I know that sounds like a really long time, but if the heart rate and breathing rate are kept low while the treatment is attacking the heartworms, there is less chance of the fragments moving into the lungs and causing severe damage. To help you gauge what activities are ok, we recommend that your dog only go for walks to go to the bathroom and should otherwise be in a confined space where they can be calm from the time of the first treatment. This may require the use of a crate.
  2. Using Heartworm Prevention: Your dog must be on heartworm prevention for a minimum of 60 days before the first treatment. Heartworm prevention takes the form of monthly pills and is given beforehand to make sure that all the worms in your dog’s body can be killed by the melarsomine treatments. We strongly recommend continuing monthly heartworm prevention throughout treatment and for the duration of your pet’s life to prevent re-infection.
  3. Prescribing Antibiotics: Our vets prescribe a 30-day antibiotic, before the first treatment. This specific antibiotic (doxycycline) has been shown to kill bacteria inside heartworms that are vital to the worms’ health. More importantly, killing the bacteria results in less life threatening inflammation of the lungs during the treatment.

Things to Avoid Giving Your Dog During Heartworm Treatment

We strongly advise against giving your dog any over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs (like Aspirin), while your dog is receiving heartworm treatment. The heartworm treatment injections themselves can be very painful for some dogs, so most veterinarians will prescribe an anti-inflammatory drug that is acceptable to give to your dog. When in doubt – ask your vet and SKIP giving your dog any at home “people” medication!

Now that you know more about how to reduce the chances of negative side effect and what not to give your dog, let’s walk through an example of the treatment itself.

Example Heartworm Treatment Timeline & What to Expect 

Below is an example treatment timeline that works for most heartworm positive dogs, but depending on the severity of the heartworm disease, your vet will need to decide the best route which may include surgery. Bottom line, always consult your vet, but let’s walk through a typical treatment:

Initial Consultation:

  • The veterinarian will examine your pet, and perform a confirmation test that your dog does in fact test positive for heartworm disease if that has not already been done.
  • An antibiotic will be sent home with your dog.
  • Heartworm prevention for two or more months will be sent home, if needed.
  • Schedule out the 3 injections (treatment) appointments

1st Treatment – 60 days from consultation & positive test results:

  • You will give your dog an oral sedative at home, 30 minutes to one hour prior to arrival at the clinic
  • An examination and blood work will be performed to check your dog’s liver and kidney function
  • Injection (treatment) #1 is given
  • You will be sent home with pain and anti-inflammatory medication 
  • You will place your pet under strict crate (confined space) rest.

2nd Treatment – 30 days after 1st Treatment:

  • You will give your dog an oral sedative at home, 30 minutes to one hour prior to arrival at the clinic
  • An examination is performed by a veterinarian – talk to your vet about any reactions from the previous treatment
  • Injection (treatment) #2 is given
  • You will be sent home with pain and anti-inflammatory medication 
  • You will place your pet under strict crate (confined space) rest.

3rd Treatment – 24 hours after 2nd Treatment:

  • You will give your dog an oral sedative at home, 30 minutes to one hour prior to arrival at the clinic
  • An examination is performed by a veterinarian – talk to your vet about any reactions from the previous day’s treatment
  • Injection (treatment) #3 is given
  • You will be sent home with pain and anti-inflammatory medication 
  • You will place your pet under strict crate (confined space) rest.

Check Up & Test – 30 days after 3rd Treatment:

  • An examination is performed by a veterinarian, along with a test to be sure no new heartworms have formed. At this point you’re almost done, but not quite!

Final Visit & Test – 8 months after Check Up:

  • A final examination is performed by a veterinarian, along with a test to see if the results come back confirming that your dog is now (hopefully) heartworm negative. 

Treatment Takes Time

As you can see heartworm treatment takes multiple trips to the vet over several months AND a lot of patience from you and your dog to limit their activity. Remember, this example works for some dogs that test heartworm positive, but not for all. Ultimately the path to overcoming your dog’s heartworm disease must be decided upon by your veterinarian. Click here to find your closest Emancipet clinic.

If it’s been a while since your dog’s last check up, we recommend you schedule an appointment with your vet and regularly test for heartworm disease. The best defense is always a good offense, so talk to your vet about getting your dog on heartworm prevention if they are not already on one. Happy Heartworm Awareness month and stay safe out there!

Download

Our Full Heartworm Treatment Information Packet that includes even more information like  tips and tricks for administering medicine please download this helpful guide.