THE floods are here, the frogs are croaking and the mosquitoes are breeding like miniature, malevolent bunnies.
It’s not enough that these little buzzing monsters can cause huge, itchy lumps and sleepless nights – they also carry a variety of horrible diseases.
Heartworm is a parasite which isn’t well known in this area.
Generally, the further north you travel, the more heartworm there is. However, when I used to live in Swan Hill we did diagnose dogs with the disease – and we aren’t very far from there.
So what’s the link between these two parasites?
Yes, I know mosquitoes are actually insects, but as a long-suffering victim of their blood-sucking ways, I reckon they don’t deserve to be equal to ladybirds, butterflies and Christmas beetles.
But as I was saying – the link. Heartworm lives in the heart of dogs, and even sometimes cats (but only where there’s a very high level of heartworm).
It is spread by mosquitoes from dog to dog. So a mosquito which has bitten a dog carrying heartworm, has the larvae (baby heartworms) develop in its salivary glands to an infective stage.
When that mosquito then bites another, uninfected dog, the larvae develop into adult worms which live in the dog’s heart.
They can cause damage to the heart, and, and in severe infestations, block blood moving through blood vessels (like spaghetti blocking a pipe) resulting in heart failure and death.
I know people think that because their dog doesn’t come into contact with other dogs, they are safe from heartworm infection – it’s just not true.
On mainland Australia, wherever mosquitoes live, heartworm can too. And new studies have shown pockets of heartworm are spreading within Victoria.
So what are the signs of heartworm disease?
The same as for any cause of heart failure – breathing problems, coughing, exercise intolerance, abdominal enlargement, lethargy, collapse.
There is an in-house test which can be performed if you are concerned – lots of other things can cause these symptoms too.
Tablets, spot-ons and a yearly injection are readily available to prevent this horrific disease.
We recommend heartworm prevention for two main reasons:
1. Prevention is better than cure. Treating the disease can kill your dog. The treatment is arsenic-based and not safe. But, unfortunately, not treating can be a worse option. So the best thing to do is avoid having to make that tough decision.
2. After the Victorian floods of September 2010 and January 2011, there was a huge increase in mosquito numbers. Mosquitoes from high heartworm areas may have travelled to Echuca. So our formerly low incidence of heartworm disease may be changing. Unfortunately, the recent heavy rains have again made conditions ideal for a monster mosquito breeding season. Unless vets start testing every unprotected dog, we may not know if heartworm disease is increasing in our area until many unprotected dogs are infected – and that could include your dog.
So the take home message regarding heartworm?
Avoid a preventable, lethal disease and check with your vet about the best treatment for your dog.