Heartworm on the rise on the Osa Peninsula

1016948_10151927951702064_795868185_n Janina Schan

Heartworm on the rise on the Osa Peninsula

 Write her directly at greenlifevolunteers@gmail.com


Just in the last month I had three rescued dogs diagnose positive for heartworm. Another friend of mine had his dog tested, positive for heartworm as well, strangely enough, since his dog is usually on monthly heartworm medication. However, it seems as if the heartworm meds are not 100% effective, especially if not given exactly every month. If you miss a dose, your dog is not protected.

I met with our local vet, Dr. Ricardo Alfaro, and he confirmed that heartworm is a common problem – and he noted there are many cases currently. He also explained to me exactly what heartworm is, and how it is treated. I thought I would share this important information since many dogs on the Osa are possibly affected.

What is heartworm?

Heartworm is a serious and sometimes fatal disease in dogs, cats and other domestic and wild mammals. Humans can contract the disease but it’s very rare, and the disease doesn’t have any serious health effects in humans.

The parasite responsible for heartworm is called Dirofilaria immitis and is usually transmitted through mosquitos. Hence in areas with high mosquito occurrence heartworm is more likely to occur.

The adult stage is found in the heart and major blood vessels of infected animals – and any dog is susceptible to the disease.

Heartworm prevention and treatment

To prevent heartworm from infecting your dog, you need to administer monthly pills called Heartgard.

However, you cannot just start giving your animal heartworm pills without first testing your pet for heartworm. It could KILL your pet if you administer heartworm pills without previous testing at the vet.

The inexpensive and quick blood test is available at Dr. Ricardo Alfaro’s office, or at any veterinarian’s office. It takes around 10 minutes for results to show. If your pet is negative for heartworm, you can begin the heartworm treatment with monthly pills.

If your pet is positively tested for heartworm, the animal has to receive a course of antibiotics for 30 days, and a month and a half later his first Hartgard pill. However, this is not enough to kill the adult worms inside your pet’s heart.

After a course of antibiotics, which weakens the worms (the antibiotic does not actually kill the worms; it kills the bacteria inside the worms, and make the worms weak) the Heartgard pill prevents any further development of worms.

To kill adult heartworm and to do the actual heartworm treatment a different medicine has to be administered, called “immiticide.” This medicine is not available at the Puerto Jimenez vet, and can only be administered by a licensed vet specialized in cardiovascular animal diseases. Dr. Ricardo Alfaro works with a specialized vet who can come down if there are sufficient heartworm cases (at least ten) to begin the treatment and administer it. The treatment with the special drug takes 60 days to complete and consists of a series of drug injections that kills the adult worms.

But wait – there is more

Your pet should be retested six months after completing the first course of heartworm treatment to ensure that all of the larvae, microfilariae and adult worms are actually dead. If your pet still tests positive for heartworm six months after treatment, you may need to repeat treatment to kill the remaining worms.

It’s a long and difficult route to defeat heartworm, and of course expensive. Most people on the Osa don’t even know that their dog has heartworm, and won’t treat it, and hence it spreads even more.

One of the most important things is that you restrict exercise for a heartworm positive pet. Physical exertion increases the rate at which the heartworms cause damage in the heart and lungs. The more severe the symptoms, the less activity your dog should have.

And how do you recognize if your dog potentially has heartworm?

Heartworm disease is defined in three classes, varying in severity. Dogs with Class I heartworm disease are often asymptomatic, meaning they exhibit no visible symptoms, or may only exhibit minimal signs such as an occasional cough.

Class II heartworm infected dogs usually exhibit coughing and unusual intolerance to exercise. The most severe cases, defined as Class III, may show symptoms of anemia, exercise intolerance, fainting, and chronic heart failure (leading to death).

SO, if heartworm is really that bad, why don’t hundreds of dogs on the Osa Peninsula die each month from it?
What many people might not realize is that heartworm disease is rarely a death sentence. In fact, dogs with this condition can live happy, high quality and long lives – as long as they are given appropriate care.

These heartworm positive dogs are not contagious and only in the most severe cases do they show any symptoms. So, as long as their condition is managed properly and is not critical, they can make wonderful, long-term companions.

I have three rescued dogs with heartworm in foster care right now, they’re receiving the necessary treatments and are doing better and better each day.

If you suspect your pet has a disease such as heartworm, please consult our local vet Dr. Ricardo Alfaro for more information, testing, and treatments.

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