CEDAR RAPIDS — Cases of heartworm are up in Cedar Rapids, a warning to pet owners to be diligent in giving heartworm prevention medication and taking their pets for annual checkups, veterinarians and local animal shelters said.
Cedar Rapids was ranked third in the U.S. for the highest percentage increase in positive heartworm tests in dogs and cats in June by the Companion Animal Parasite Council, a nonprofit organization that tracks trends in parasites in dogs and cats. Sioux Falls, S.D., was ranked No. 1, and Rockford, Ill., No. 2.
While there is a cure for heartworm, the treatment is costly and hard on the animal. Heartworm is fatal in cats.
In Linn County, 1 out of every 179 dogs tested for heartworm showed positive results this past June, compared to a year ago in June 2018, when only 1 out of every 466 dogs tested for heartworm showed positive results, according to the council. Data was not available for July.
The Companion Animal Parasite Council collects data from Antech Diagnostics and Imaging, a veterinary reference laboratory network with 65 facilities in North America, and IDEXX Laboratories Inc., which specializes in veterinary diagnostics, software and water microbiology testing. Members of the council are representatives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, practicing veterinarians, veterinary technicians and state public health veterinarians.
Dr. Teresa Streeper, a veterinarian at Blairs Ferry Pet Hospital in Cedar Rapids, said she has seen an uptick in heartworm diagnoses in Cedar Rapids.
How is heartworm transmitted to pets?
Heartworm is transmitted to dogs and cats by mosquitoes. A mosquito bites an infected animal and picks up tiny larvae, called microfilaria, from the dog’s bloodstream. When the mosquito bites another animal, it infects that animal with the heartworm larvae. The heartworm larvae grow and migrate to the animal’s heart and lungs. Symptoms of heartworm include coughing and low energy.
People cannot get heartworm from their pets. Although it’s rare, a person can be infected by heartworm from a mosquito bite.
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Streeper said one of the reasons for the increase in heartworm cases is because more dogs are being brought to Cedar Rapids by rescue groups from other areas of the country with higher mosquito populations.
The warmer summer weather in Iowa — reaching over 100 degrees with humidity during parts of July — may also be to blame, she said. Mosquitoes flourish in hot, humid environments.
Streeper said animals should have an annual examination by their veterinarian, including a heartworm test. Streeper cautioned pet owners not to confuse heartworm medication, which must be prescribed by a veterinarian, for flea and tick prevention medication.
“It’s not something they can go to Petco or PetSmart and get off the shelf. It’s a prescription product,” Streeper said.
How area shelters cope
Last Hope Animal Rescue currently has four dogs with heartworm out of their 200 to 250 animals, said Lori Arbuckle, the organization’s medical coordinator.
Animals in the care of Last Hope are tested for heartworm before beginning heartworm prevention medication. If a dog is heartworm positive, they are treated for heartworm, a process that is very hard on the animal, Arbuckle said.
“Sometimes they don’t make it through treatment,” Arbuckle said. “Once they do (begin treatment) they have to keep the animal down and quiet for 30 days. No running, jumping or playing” because of the risk of a blood clot.
Cedar Valley Humane Society currently has four heartworm-positive dogs in its care, said Jennifer Lane, marketing and developing director for the animal shelter. The maximum capacity for the shelter is 200 animals, including dogs, cats and other small animals like rabbits, guinea pigs and sometimes even geckos.
Lane was unable to say how many dogs are currently at the shelter, but she did say that three of the four dogs with heartworm are from Iowa.
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Cedar Valley Humane Society tests all dogs over 7 months old. Heartworm tests typically don’t show accurate results before that age, Lane said. The shelter sees an average five heartworm-positive dogs each year, she said.
The shelter depends on donations of heartworm medication to treat dogs diagnosed with the disease. Treatment can cost upward of $1,000 per dog, a hefty burden for a nonprofit animal shelter, Lane said.
Dogs diagnosed with heartworm at Cedar Valley Humane Society go to a foster home, where they can be more carefully monitored. Lane said dogs recovering from heartworm shouldn’t exert themselves because it can cause more problems for their recovery.
“It’s not very fun for the animals to have to fight. There’s a prevention for it, and there is a treatment for it,” Lane said.
When a dog is adopted from the shelter, Lane said there is a conversation with the new owner about taking the dog to see a vet and prescribing heartworm prevention medication.
Lane also said a lot of veterinarians have rebate programs where if a pet owner buys six months of heartworm medication, they can get the other six months free.
“I think a lot of people don’t know prevention is affordable for them,” Lane said.
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