Hunting Dogs, Heartworms, and Parvo

By:

Kimberly Lindamood, DVM
Ross University
Veterinary Emergency Referral Center
4800 North Davis Highway
Pensacola, Florida 32503
Phone: 850-477-3914

Heartworms and Parvo have three things in common, easily preventable, very expensive to treat, and very deadly. It breaks my heart every time I have to inform an owner that their beloved hunting dog has parvo or heartworms. 

Heartworms are transmitted via mosquitoes. Just one bite from a single mosquito is all it takes to infect a hunting dog. Some dogs develop signs of heartworm disease in as little as 6 months; others take years to show signs. All dogs will eventually develop serious life threatening problems; heart murmur, ascites (fluid in abdomen), chronic progressive cough, multiple organ failure, weakness, and eventually heart failure. A simple blood test will determine if adult heartworms are present in the heart and will indicate if it is a low, medium, or high worm burden. These heartworms look very much like spaghetti (most animal clinics have a jar with a preserved heartworm infected heart, check it out the next time you are in the animal hospital.)

Heartworm disease can be treated if caught in the early stages, meaning minimal clinical signs. Each dog is evaluated to determine if they can be treated safely. This will include physical exam, radiographs of chest (evaluates heart and lungs), blood work (evaluates major organ function), and concurrent diseases. If these receive a passing grade, then the patient is given a series of injections to kill the adult heartworms. During treatment the patient must remain calm, no exercise, and no fun for several months.

Not only does this treatment take several months to complete it is very expensive. The cost depends on the weight of the animal and can easily cost up to $1,000. If you contrast that with preventative, which costs only $5 to $17 per month, it is much easier on your wallet and better for your dog’s health to give that magic pill once a month. If a dog is unlucky, he or she arrives at the clinic in the end stages of heartworm disease. These dogs are too sick to treat and will die in a short period of time. Sometimes, the kindest thing to do is to help them by ending their suffering.

It is a myth that indoor dogs will not get heartworms. I have seen just as many indoor dogs get heartworms as I’ve seen outdoor and hunting dogs get them. It is also a myth that dogs cannot get heartworms in the winter. I’ve seen mosquitoes in my house when it was 30 degrees outside. The easiest thing is prevention. There are many choices for heartworm preventives, all are taken monthly, and there is a wide range of costs to fit anyone’s budget. Please take the time to talk to your veterinarian to determine the right one for your beloved friend. 

Parvo, I see parvo all the time all year long. The parvo virus can live in the environment for years; some say even 10 years! All unvaccinated dogs are at risk for this deadly disease. Symptoms of parvo are bloody diarrhea, vomiting, not eating, and weakness. Someone once described parvo to me as if a dog ate crushed glass, a very good analogy.

These dogs go from happy go lucky to sitting on death’s door very quickly. Treatment must be quick and very aggressive. Since parvo is a virus, it cannot be killed. We must support the body until the body’s immune system can take care of the virus. Treatment for even the smallest dog can be very expensive, whereas, vaccination is very inexpensive. Treatment does not guarantee survival. Puppies receive colostrums from their mother’s first milk. This colostrum contains immunity to the parvo virus IF and only IF the mother was vaccinated. This immunity will remain with the puppy for about 6 to 8 weeks when we start giving puppy vaccines. Puppies then need to get booster vaccines every 3 to 4 weeks until their immune system is developed; around 12 to 16 weeks or age, and can sustain immunity for a year. Thereafter, dogs are given a booster yearly.

A warning about giving vaccinations at home; if vaccinations are not handled properly the vaccination is useless; you might as well inject water. Vaccinations must arrive at the store cold and they must remain cold at all times. If they are received warm and then put in a cooler, they are useless. If the cooler breaks and no one catches it until all the vaccines are warm, the vaccines are useless. If the vaccines are given improperly, it is useless. I have seen many parvo dogs whose owners swear they gave vaccines at home. They might have, but I wonder about the handling of the vaccine.

These two very deadly diseases can be prevented very easily and inexpensively. PREVENTION is the key. Please take the time to give your hunting dog the gift of a healthy life and visit your veterinarian for heartworm and parvo prevention. Your dog and your wallet will thank you.

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