Heartworm, west nile and ticks

Q: We were told by a friend that we don’t need to give
medication in the winter to prevent heartworm. Now our vet tells us
that this is wrong. She says we should give the preventative
medicine all year long. Who’s right?
Q: We were told by a friend that we don’t need to give medication in the winter to prevent heartworm. Now our vet tells us that this is wrong. She says we should give the preventative medicine all year long. Who’s right?

A: This time the nod goes to your pet’s vet. Heartworm preventative should be given all year ’round, and here’s why.

Heartworm is a very contagious disease to dogs, and to a lesser degree, kitty-cats. It’s transmitted only by the bite of a mosquito, which transfers the parasite from one victim to another. Heartworm disease is usually deadly to its victims. In regions where cold weather eliminates mosquitoes, it would be easy to presume that the medication might not be necessary during the winter. We get this kind of cold winter weather in South Valley during several months where morning temperatures get down to the freezing. Frost kills mosquitoes, and if there are no mosquitoes to spread the disease, your dog should be safe, right?

Well, it sounds good, but several scenarios exist that put a dog at risk for this disease any time of the year. And because of this, I believe that dogs should be on the medication all the time. Here’s an example.

Let’s say you get a call from a relative in the Santa Cruz area or somewhere else where heartworm is endemic. Your relative asks you to come for a visit. And, you decide to take your dog on the trip. In some parts of the state, like much of Santa Cruz, frost is uncommon. Heartworm mosquitoes are alive and well all the time. If you take your pooch with you, and if he is not taking the preventative medication, and if he is bitten by one of these mosquitoes … well, you get the picture. You might end up with a very sick dog.

It’s just so easy to give that preventative medication once a month, and the cost is nominal. So for the sake of your dog, give the medication, and you’ll never have to worry.

Q: There’s news that West Nile Virus will be a problem again this summer. Will this problem ever go away? Do we need to vaccinate our dogs and cats?

A: The news about West Nile isn’t good. Already in March, officials have found infected mosquitoes in traps set around the state. Dead birds infected with the virus have been identified in several counties as well. This is earlier in the year than expected, and probably means there is an early start to the mosquito season due to our wet winter.

The only good news is that dogs and cats seem to be somewhat immune to this disease. In fact, there is no effort at this time to develop a vaccine for these animals because of their innate resistance.

The focus is on protecting those who are susceptible to West Nile. And as we know it, this virus is most dangerous for birds, people and horses. If you have horses, it’s imperative that you vaccinate them to protect against this disease.

And remember to protect yourself. Wear protective clothing or use mosquito repellent whenever you are at risk of exposure. West Nile has established a frightening track record so far as it’s made its way across the country.

Common sense dictates that everyone be very careful and avoid mosquito bites.

Q: We have found a lot of ticks on our dogs already this year. Is this going to be a bad year for these insects? How dangerous are they?

A: Ticks are indigenous to most of Northern California, and it seems that the weather conditions have already made this a banner year for these parasites. Ticks are more than just a nuisance to you and your pets. They are vectors for some very serious diseases.

In this area, we’re particularly concerned about the tick transmission of Lyme Disease. Lyme is prevalent in many regions of the country, but many people incorrectly think that it’s not much of a problem in California and the West.

Truth is, it’s not as large a problem here, but it is all around us, and it is dangerous.

Lyme Disease causes several different sets of symptoms in animals. And any patient that suffers muscular weakness or unexplained pain should be tested for this disease if he or she has any possible exposure to ticks.

Many of you have heard stories of people who have been ill for prolonged periods, then finally diagnosed with this disease. Lyme is a difficult organism to diagnose because of its unpredictable effect on the body. As a result, many people and some animals go undiagnosed and untreated for long periods, allowing the parasite to do serious damage. Early diagnosis is important in fighting this disease and certain antibiotics are effective against Lyme bacteria. But prevention (avoiding exposure to tick bites) is even more critical to help avoid Lyme and other tick-borne diseases.

There are several other dangerous diseases that are carried by ticks. One of these, called Tick Paralysis, seems primarily to affect dogs. It occurs in some dogs that are bitten by a particular type of tick and the symptoms are dramatic. The patient becomes weak and sometimes completely paralyzed. These signs arise as a result of a reaction to neurotoxin in the “saliva” of the tick, and each repeated exposure can be worse. In some cases, untreated dogs even need the assistance of a respirator to breathe and despite treatment, some of these dogs die from infection.

The good news is that quick removal of the tick from the skin is usually curative for this paralytic disease. But needless to say, the best approach to this and all other parasitic diseases, is to avoid contact with the insect vector as best as possible.

Talk to your pet’s vet about what you can do to prevent exposure to tick and other insect-related diseases. Prevention really is important.

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