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Nicer weather brings unwanted visitors

Heartworms, fleas, ticks can cause heartache

April 29, 2012
By JOE SUTTER, Messenger staff writer , Messenger News

The dog at the East Lawn Animal Hospital wasn't showing any symptoms of illness. But when veterinarian Michael Bottorff had him tested for a routine heartworm checkup, the test came back positive.

"The dog was not on the preventative last year, and he tested positive today. That tells me he's got worms living in his heart," Bottorff said.

It's much better to catch the disease through a routine screening than to see a dog that's showing signs of disease, he said.

Article Photos

-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen
East Lawn Animal Hospital veterinarian Jen Arnold holds a box of heartworm preventative. Although heartworm is usually thought of as a canine malady, it is possible for cats to contract the parasite, Arnold said. “There are flea and tick prevention products that also include heartworm prevention,” she said. Farm cats, for example, have an increased exposure to mosquitos that spread heartworm.

"Usually by the time they show symptoms, the disease is pretty well advanced. That's why we like to find it before they become sick. It's one of those things where an ounce of prevention is worth 10 pounds of cure in this case."

Untreated heartworms take up space in the heart, Bottorff said, and cause it to lose effectiveness. The blood can start to back up into the liver and lungs. Eventually the dog can start to show signs of heart, liver or lung disease.

"A dog that begins to lose weight, or a dog that coughs ... those would be the two main things," he said. "A dog that starts to look poor, lose weight, that has a poor hair coat."

Fact Box

At a glance:

Always use a heartworm preventative for dogs.

Tick preventatives can last a month from one application, and protect pets from diseases ticks carry such as Lyme disease.

Provide pets with plenty of water in the summer, and never lock a pet in a car.

Keep animals up to date with vaccinations.

Heartworms are spread by mosquitoes, Bottorff said, and the best way to prevent them is to keep dogs on a preventative medicine. All dogs should be on a heartworm preventative for the summer. In fact, more and more Bottorff recommends using a year-round preventive.

"That also prevents intestinal worms," he said.

Veterinarian Kimberly Shimkat at the Family Pet Medical Center agreed.

"There's a push to move (treatments) to year-round," Shimkat said, "just to make sure everyone's protected longer since the seasons seem like they're getting milder. It gets warmer earlier and stays warmer later in the fall."

Plus, the treatments are easier to administer than they once were.

"It used to be you had to give pills every day; now you can do once a month," Bottorff said.


East Lawn veterinarian Jen Arnold said cats could also catch heartworm, but it is less common.

"We don't do routine heartworm checks for cats," Arnold said.

Since cats are smaller, they can get sicker from fewer worms than dogs would. This also makes it harder to detect them, she said.

Some people do give their cats heartworm preventatives.

"There are flea and tick prevention products for cats that also include heartworm prevention," she said. "It's good for outdoor cats who are exposed to mosquitoes, like farm cats.

"Fleas are a big one for cats. Even if it's an indoor cat, if there's flea prevention on the dog but not on the cat the dog can carry them in, and they can live off the cat."

"Fleas are always present," Shimkat said. "It's always around 100 degrees on the dog, so fleas can live on them year-round. We tend to see them proliferate more in the warmer months."

It's also important to keep pets' vaccinations up to date, Bottorff said. Shimkat said most vets send reminders to help pet owners keep current.

Ticks are another source of disease in the spring and summer.

"Ticks have been out for three or four weeks now," Bottorff said. "We've had a terribly early spring; that's great for the ticks. Ticks themselves don't cause a lot of problems, but the diseases they spread including Lyme disease are very significant."

Shimkat said most tick prevention treatments would kill any ticks on contact within 24 to 48 hours. There are many options, including sprays, topical products and tick collars.

"We like the once-a-month products because they're easy to apply, and they last so you have a barrier of protection. A lot of them are waterproof, so for an outdoor dog it doesn't matter if they're swimming and in and out of creeks," Shimkat said.

As far as repelling mosquitoes go, Shimkat said there were some products available, but that it wasn't as big a deal for dogs.

"Animals aren't sensitive to mosquito saliva like people are. So while mosquitoes are an annoyance, they don't tend to have the itchiness and irritation that we have. As long as you are using a good heartworm preventative, we don't concern ourselves too much about that. The preventative will take care of anything they're exposed to."


As summer comes on with warmer weather, Bottorff said it's important to keep dogs from overheating.

"The only way dogs can get rid of heat is to pant. Panting, of course, can dehydrate a dog if he doesn't have access to fresh water all the time," he said. "Dogs can tolerate heat if they have access to fresh water, and also some shade, especially for darker colored dogs.

"Don't leave pets in cars. Cars become like an oven really quickly - on a 90-degree day it can get to 120 in a car. We all know that."

Cracking the window "doesn't do any good," he said. It helps a little, but the car still heats up, and dogs can be overcome.

"If people call and have a dog who's panting excessively, maybe a little disoriented, I tell them to quick get a garden hose, put a fan on the dog to cool it down. Dogs can go into shock and die pretty quickly from heat stroke."

Contact Joe Sutter at (515) 573-2141 or



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