Heartworms are potentially deadly parasites transmitted via infected mosquitoes. A heartworm can live for years, and it takes months for a dog to present with symptoms. However, ignoring a heartworm infection can be fatal. There are a variety of preventives on the market to protect your dog, should he become bitten by the wrong bug, but his treatment options are more limited.
Understanding the Infection
Heartworm infection starts with a bite, and then another bite. Essentially, a mosquito bites and sucks heartworm larvae from his infected host -- a dog, fox, wolf or coyote -- and goes about his business for up to two weeks. It then bites another animal -- potentially your dog -- and deposits the infected larva onto the dog, where it enters the bite wound and makes its way into the dog's bloodstream. It takes approximately six months for the larval worms to make their way to your dog's heart, where they mature into adult worms. Early, mild symptoms include a hacking cough, weight loss and intolerance to exercise, potentially progressing to heart failure and collapse, particularly if there are large numbers of heartworms present.
Conventional Prevention and Treatment
Conventional veterinary medicine advocates the use of one of several preventives to prevent infection in case a dog is bitten by an infected mosquito. The medication can be injected every six months by the vet or dispensed orally or topically monthly at home with a prescription. There are fewer treatment options for an infected dog. The only commercially available medication to kill adult heartworms is melarsomine dihydrochloride, which requires multiple painful injections. A "slow kill" method uses ivermectin with the antibiotic doxycycline, killing the microfilariae to keep them from maturing. Surgical removal through the jugular vein tends to be reserved for severely infected dogs.
Killing heartworms and their larvae is serious business, requiring some powerful medication, so it's understandable to be leery of giving your dog such a potent medicine on an ongoing basis. If you want to discourage mosquitoes from biting your pup, you can try herbs such as tumeric root, mugwort, wormwood, black walnut and clove flower buds, however use them only with the guidance of a holistic vet to ensure they're properly administered. Dr. Karen Becker of HealthyPets.com recommends testing for heartworm every three or four months as opposed to the routine annual testing when using homeopathic heartworm preventives because they cannot guarantee to protect against infection. Both Dr. Becker and Dr. Ronald Hines of 2ndChance.info do not advocate taking a natural or homeopathic approach to treating heartworm infection, as they often do more harm than good.
Dr. Karen Becker notes a strong immune system will go a long way to fight off all potential parasites, starting with a healthy, balanced diet to provide the foundation of a strong immune system. Minimize exposure to mosquitoes by using insect repellents and barriers outside and keeping your dog away from standing water and staying indoors during the active dawn and dusk hours. Dr. Becker also recommends if you use a monthly preventive, use it only when mosquitoes are a risk in your area and use detoxifying agents, such as milk thistle, under veterinary supervision.