Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Rescued pit bull diagnosed with heartworms: Mendocino County a high-risk area for pets

Updated: 09/14/2009 12:00:20 AM PDT

For the Daily Journal

The saga continues for pit bull Zena, one of two dogs transferred to the Humane Society of Inland Mendocino County in July. Zena and Jett were two of hundreds of pit bulls rescued from a Missouri dog fighting ring and have been recuperating from their ordeal.

"When Zena and Jett were spayed they were tested for heartworms. Zena came up positive," explains Leslie Dodds, Humane Society volunteer. Dodds has been working extensively with the dogs in preparation for their adoption.

Heartworms, according to Dr. Katy Sommers of Mendocino Animal Hospital, are a life-threatening disease transmitted by mosquitoes and affecting both dogs and cats.

"They can affect any animal at any age that is bitten by mosquitoes carrying heartworm larvae," explains Sommers.

Mendocino, Lake and areas of Sacramento County are high-incidence areas for the disease. What is most unfortunate, according to Sommers, is that simple prevention can save lives and eliminate the enormous treatment costs once a pet is infected.

"Mosquitoes travel up to three miles, so you don't have to live near a water source to be in an infectious area," says Sommers. The disease - which affects dogs and cats very differently, is often not noticed by pet guardians until permanent or even fatal damage occurs.

"Severe symptoms may be the first symptom you notice," explains Sommers. "Cats have breathing problems resembling an acute asthma attack, which can become fatal very quickly.
In cats it presents as an acute respiratory disease." In dogs, a pet owner may notice coughing, weight loss and lethargy, all of which can lead to heart failure.

The heartworm larvae take six months to grow to adulthood, and the 6- to 10-inch long worms can live for many years in an animal before dying a natural death. Once an animal like Zena is infected, treatment will be long and expensive.

"With dogs, we give a series of intramuscular injections in their back over several months," said Sommers. The medication will kill off the worms, but it must be administered gradually, according to Sommers, so that deadly embolisms are not formed.

Dogs are easily tested for heartworms, and Dr. Sommers recommends that pets be tested annually, along with providing monthly heartworm prevention medication. Cats, which are sensitive to very small heartworm infestations, often have false or inconclusive test results, so Sommers encourages cat guardians err on the side of caution and provide preventive medication.

"Oral and topical therapies are available for dogs and cats," says Sommers. The medication is administered monthly and in some cases is included in topical flea treatments. The medication must be used every month, or else the animal runs the risk of becoming infected during the lapse.

Sage Mountainfire, adoptions coordinator for the county's animal control division, recently adopted out a dog that the shelter successfully treated for heartworms. "You can have a wonderful dog with no symptoms, but that doesn't mean the worms aren't there," she said.

Every dog at the shelter is tested prior to adoptions.

"This is done as part of a whole evaluation process for our shelter dogs," explains Mountainfire. She stresses that all treatment costs are taken out of a private donation fund, at no cost to taxpayers.

"We really try to educate people about the need to do heartworm prevention. We encourage adoptive families to buy their prevention medication at their free exam," she said.

Mountainfire uses the heartworm problem to illustrate the hidden costs of accepting a "free" dog from a friend or family member.

"Free dogs aren't really free," says Mountainfire, particularly if a dog becomes stricken with a life-threatening disease, which is expensive to treat and could have been prevented.

Zena begins treatment Sept. 15, and will be lying low for about 60 days, to reduce the possibility of complications. Dodds encourages volunteers to come to the Humane Society and spend time with Zena while she is recovering. The Society will bear the brunt of the treatment costs, which may be as much as $600 to $800.

"We always appreciate support to help with the costs of maintaining our animals," says Dodds, who points out the Society's kennels and the county shelter are near capacity.

As pet owners struggle with the stagnant economy, Dr. Sommers encourages families to speak with their vet about reducing costs while providing the best possible care. She stresses the importance of providing Heartworm prevention, as well as scheduling annual exams.

"Wellness checks are important in maintaining pet health," says Sommers. "Talk to your vet about individualizing vaccine protocols. Not all animals need every vaccination, so together you can base vaccine choices on individual risks."

Like their human families, Sommers emphasizes exercise, maintaining a lean body weight and providing pets with the highest quality nutrition families can afford.

Happily, according to Dodds, it looks like Jett has found a real home at last. Dodds is working closely with the adoptive family to make certain it is a solid match, but she is very confident. Zena is available for adoption consideration, and Dodds hopes the perfect family will find a place for Zena in their home and hearts.

For information for the Humane Society, visit or phone 485-0123.

To contact the Mendocino County Animal Care and Control, call 463-4427.

For the Mendocino Animal Hospital, visit or phone 462-8833.