Heartworm season is coming up!

We’ll be seeing a postcard in the mail from our local vets, reminding us to get our dogs tested for heartworm. Most of them will be recommending monthly heartworm medication, year round. Is this necessary? It’s a personal decision, best made by an informed pet owner.

Minimizing toxins is one of the foundations of our “healthy pet” program. We want to use only those medications, preventatives, and treatments that are useful and necessary. With careful evaluation, some “approved toxins” may be reduced. Medications are by their nature toxic to certain organisms, and often have serious short or long-term side effects for the animal.

Sometimes chemicals are necessary to save lives. The chemicals used to prevent heartworm are extremely effective and can save dogs from difficult, unpleasant, and potentially dangerous treatment. However, recommended treatment schedules may result in far greater quantities of toxic chemicals being ingested by dogs than are necessary.

The Transmissibility Season for Heartworm Varies by Climate

The transmissibility season for heartworm is determined by temperature. In order for the larvae of the heartworm, carried by mosquitoes, to be transmitted to a dog, the average temperature must be at least 57 degrees . 1

This means, for example, that in Florida, the heartworm season will be quite long. In Florida, it might make sense to give preventative year round.

In Chicago, the temperature necessary for transmission is not usually reached until June. The beginning of the season is not likely to be earlier than June 1 most years, and perhaps later, even through mosquitoes may be present. Temperatures begin to drop at night by September. By October, the season will certainly be over, though we may still see mosquitoes.

Preventives Kill Heartworm Larvae

The chemicals used to control heartworm are called preventives, but when we use them we are actually treating larvae. The chemicals kill the larvae your pet may have picked up in the period since the last dose. We are really treating for possible infection, not preventing next month’s exposure.

Prevention Options

“Monthly” treatments are best kept as simple as possible, in our opinion. There are a number of options based on several chemicals. You have a choice of a pill (flavored or unflavored) or a topical treatment, and some are “multipurpose “.

We prefer that our animals only receive medication that specifically treats for heartworm, rather than a multi-purpose treatment. Some manufacturers formulate products that combine heartworm prevention with worming medication, flea, tick and mange medication, just in case your pet may encounter these parasites. We don’t think “Just in case” is a good enough reason to put a multitude of toxic chemicals into your pet’s body. If they have parasites, certainly treatment is necessary. If they don’t, it’s best not to inflict unneeded chemicals on their systems. Because there is no one, universal dewormer, a more common sense approach is to check for parasites at least annually and if your dog is positive, use the correct dewormer.

Plain Ivermectin (Heartguard, NOT Heartguard Plus) is the simplest choice for heartworm prevention, and the safest for most dogs. Certain breeds have shown some sensitivity to Ivermectin. We recommend you discuss the least toxic options for your pet with your holistic veterinarian.

Make sure your pet swallows the pill! Keep an eye on her for a while afterward. While it doesn’t happen often, dogs occasionally vomit these pills.

When to Start and End Medication?

You’ve had your pet tested this spring, and she’s clear of heartworms. How do you know when to start the preventative?

As discussed, Heartworm is not transmissible from mosquitoes to dogs until the weather is quite settled and warm. The medications work on larvae that cannot be acquired until the average temperature is greater than 57 degrees consistently for a month.

The time to start providing oral heartworm prevention recommended by the American Heartworm Society (for those of us that do not wish to give year-round medications) is a month after the transmissibility season begins (dealing with any larvae which may have been acquired and allowing for a little overlap). The Heartworm Society recommends that the last dose be given within a month after the season ends.

Many holistic veterinarians recommend that the first dose be given a month after the season begins and every six weeks after that, until the end of the season. The medications used for “monthly” prophylaxis are effective for at least 6 weeks. 2

Treatment protocols recommend one-month intervals year round to account for missed doses and client (that’s us) unreliability. The concern of veterinarians that administration will be incomplete is valid. It’s true that humans may fail to give sufficient attention to the date. However, it’s easy enough to write on your calendar or use the stickers that come with the product to mark the dates that medication is due in order to save your dogs unnecessary chemical exposure.

How many doses are you likely to need? In our hypothetical Chicago spring, four:

July 1, August 15, October 1, and Nov 15. Even if you are extra conservative, no more than one more dose will be needed. If you start May 15, you’ll end October 1. Few Octobers in Chicago have nights above 57 degrees, but if this occurs, one more dose might be needed before the end of the season. Close attention to the weather, particularly night temperatures, will give you excellent information about when to start.

Visit our PDF page to view maps adapted from those included in the referenced Knight and Lok article.

Are There Other Options to Keep Your Pet Heartworm Free?

As pet guardians, we must weight risk vs. benefit for every decision we make for our companions. Many people are appalled at the thought of using any chemicals in their pet’s wellness protocol, yet are dismayed when they get the diagnosis of their dog being heartworm positive. Heartworm treatment is significantly more toxic to the body then prevention. Deciding to not provide any heartworm prevention is like playing Russian Roulette….if you live in an endemic area and have dogs long enough, eventually you will have a pet become positive.

If your dog is older, fighting cancer or other debilitating disease, discuss the risks vs. benefits of providing heartworm prevention with your holistic vet. Dr. Becker tailors heartworm protocols and detoxification programs based on each dog’s unique medical history.

Some concerned pet owners look for more “holistic” and “natural” options such as herbal or homeopathic remedies. If you want to avoid chemical heartworm prevention it’s imperative that your animals be under the care and supervision of a veterinarian with expertise in this area.

Just because your dog does not contract heartworm in a season when you use a “natural” treatment does not mean the treatment worked – it might just mean your dog was lucky. Heartworm lives in the bloodstream, is not an intestinal parasite. Therefore natural intestinal dewormers, such as wormwood, black walnut, diatomaceous earth, pumpkin seed are ineffective for controlling heartworm. Many homeopathic veterinarians recommend heartworm nosodes, which are certainly 100% safe and natural, but we are personally aware of several dogs that have become positive while using nosodes as heartworm prevention. Dr Becker uses nosodes in certain situations but does not recommend them for all dogs as she has seen them be ineffective in some circumstances.

Holistic Veterinarians Suggest Supporting the Liver After Treatment

Hebal support for the liver following treatment is often recommended. Dr. Becker suggests a daily dose of milk thistle for the week following each treatment. Milk thistle supports the liver as it metabolizes the medication and aids in the body’s detoxification processes. Most milk thistle or silymarin capsules are about 125 mg. For a small dog, Dr. Becker suggests ½ capsule daily. For medium dogs, 1 capsule daily, and large/giant dogs 2 capsules daily for 7 days post-treatment.

Of course, the support of a whole food diet and an active and stimulating life will also help your dogs and cats live long healthy lives! Parasites are certainly more attracted to weaker or debilitated animals, so providing a raw, species appropriate diet that allows your dog to thrive is always a smart idea. Most integrative veterinarians will tell you that simply feeding a biologically correct diet does more than all the garlic pills and brewer’s yeast in the world at bolstering your dog’s defenses against parasites (as a sidenote: brewer’s yeast provokes LOTS of allergy symptoms, and only fresh garlic is medicinal).

Additionally, using natural mosquito repellents (including essential oils) is always a good common sense addition during the active mosquito season. Remember that cats are very sensitive to essential oils, and extreme caution must be exercised in using them with cats.

What About Cats?

In the past few years, veterinarians have begun to recommend that cats receive chemical preventatives for heartworm. Because cats are not the correct host for heartworm infection, we believe there could be more risks than benefit involved with continued chemical exposure for this species.

Our goal is to minimize our animal’s exposure to chemicals, including those used to prevent heartworm. If you choose to use heartworm prevention, We recommend supplying the smallest amount of drug that will do the job, for the shortest time period to be effective. This balance provides the best solution to a major health threat, with the minimum amount of medication, followed by appropriate detoxification.

For more detailed information on all aspects

of the Heartworm life cycle, go to http://www.heartwormsociety.org.

  1. 1. Knight and Lok, Seasonal Timing of Heartworm Prophylaxis in the United States
  2. 2. http://fda.gov/search – search for “nada 138-412” (leave out the quotes),  for original FDA Heartguard approval


Many of our canines and felines weigh more than they should. There’s no argument about that! Whether our very own dogs and cats are overweight – well, downright fat – that’s a lot different.

We have a hard time even knowing whether our pets are fat. Owning up, and learning to see the problem, is the first step in helping your dog or cat live longer. If we do, our pets will avoid some of the most common diseases that eventually shorten their lives.  It’s a lot easier than taking the weight off our human bodies: our pets only eat what we give them. Check the body conditions score charts at the Purina website or at your vet for a good evaluation tool. Veterinarians say that a very large number of people evaluate their animals as “just right” or “built like that” when the veterinarian says “obese”.

Do you leave food out for your dog and cat? This is one of the most common causes for obesity. Pick up that food. This will benefit your pet in many ways beyond just limiting their food intake. Another common cause for overweight is feeding too much. Seems too simple, but that’s what this series of posts is about.

It is truly confusing to try to sort out commercial foods. What’s with all the diet food? What’s the difference?  What’s best for your pet?

In the very simplest approach, your pet needs to eat the amount of food that meets his needs and no more. Open the pdf chart below to see a range of activity levels, life stages and calories needed  daily. If you know the amount of calories your dog needs, you have a place to start (sorry, no chart for felines yet!).

Caloric Requirement Postcard

So……your 50# moderately active, medium age dog needs about 1145 calories per day. There are many ways to meet that need. You can use dry food,  or canned food, or frozen food, or one of the array of dehydrated and freeze-dried foods. You can make food at home, using our book, Dr. Becker’s Real Food for Healthy Dogs and Cats, as a guide.

In this first segment, we’ll look at dry foods.

Foods made for all life stages are appropriate for the overweight – they just need to eat the right amount. Often, a real measuring cup is needed more than a new food.

We think that diet foods are more for the humans than for the dogs and cats. Diet foods have a reduced calorie count, achieved in a number of ways. Less fat, more fiber, more grain (thus less fat) and sometimes even not-so-nice additions like a hefty amount of peanut hulls. Stay away from that one.  The humans get to hand out more diet food – since it has fewer calories, the serving is bigger. But this bigger serving has a cost: more metabolically inappropriate starch, and less fat. The natural diet of a dog or a cat would have about 20% fat, and those would be really good fats (see our book for recommendations to ensure that you pet gets the good fats in her diet). We prefer that you use foods for all life stages. Consult the package carefully to see what the calorie count is. If it isn’t there, check the website, or call the company. Below are a few examples of good quality dry foods, with the calorie count for one cup. That is an official,  LEVEL DRY MEASURING CUP, not a scoop or a yogurt container.

Canine Caviar Adult                                          599 kcal per cup

Canine Caviar Venison and Split Pea            596 kcal per cup

Fromm Chicken ala Veg                                    370 kcal per cup

Fromm Salmon ala Veg                                    405 kcal per cup

Horizon Adult                                                    415 kcal per cup

Merrick Cowboy Cookout                                359 kcal per cup

Mulligan Stew Chicken                                    480 kcal per cup

Nature’s Variety Prairie Chicken                    391 kcal per cup

These “all life stages” foods range from 370-599kcal per cup. Clearly, all dry food is not alike.  Some all-stages foods have 325, a few have even more than the heftiest of those above.

Your dog might get 3 cups of food a day, or a little less than 2 cups of food. If you don’t do the calculations, you may have a very chunky dog in no time. You might think that there is something wrong – when it’s just a question of too many calories.

Which food agrees with your dog or cat is another topic entirely, but if you at least take the time to figure this part out you’ll have a good idea of how much to start with.

The directions on the package may or may not reflect the way the food performs in your dog’s body. In young skinny dogs, people often feed more and more in the hope that their pet will put some weight on. Like young humans, they might just burn up the extra food – or they may poop it out (these are BIG poops) until the day comes that they start to pack it on as fat. The dogs and cats we’re talking about here have the opposite problem. If you find that you are having to feed your pet much less than the package directs, there is a good chance the they are not getting the proper amount of nutrients. The food is planned so that the directed amount provides the appropriate nutrients.

Many obese pets (ok, a little fat) in our experience cannot handle high-grain foods and do much better on species-appropriate, real food diets, with a more appropriate balance of protein/fat/carbohydrate than can be provided by a regular pet food.

It is tempting to try one of the “grain free” dry foods, marketed to be the next best thing to real food, but they are much denser foods, with far more calories. We didn’t use any of these as examples above. The serving size is smaller and there is no water to help the body process these foods. We’re not big fans of these foods in general, though they can have a place in a rotation of dry foods.

If your pet seems to be one of those that gains on a very small amount of food, real food is probably a better choice. More exercise certainly helps, but real food AND exercise is the best choice in this situation. A frozen diet can be a good choice, or a home-made one. Canned food can provide an appropriate fat/protein/carb profile, but canned food has even more choices and a broader calorie range.

We’ll get to canned food next!

If you make food at home for your dogs, cats, or other creatures, an important goal is to get both the levels of Calcium and the ratio of Calcium to Phosphorus correct. Biologically appropriate amounts of Calcium and Phosphorus are critical for musculoskeletal growth, development, maintenance, normal organ function and central nervous system health.

Most people feeding a fresh food diet are aware of this concern. However, opinions about how to get it right are in serious conflict. Below are some facts that will allow you to evaluate those opinions when you read them. The tables might seem a bit intimidating to those with an aversion to numbers. If you take the time to read them, you’ll see that differences in approach make a big difference in nutrition.

Bone in the Ancestral Diet

The skeletal mass of the prey animals of felines and canines ranges from about 4% to no more than 11%. Bone contains Calcium, Phosphorus, many trace minerals, and other nutrients. To replicate the natural diet, this balance of bone to meat should be close to that of the natural diet, which consists mostly of small prey animals. The easiest way to do this is to include bone in the diet, using easily digestible sources like chicken necks. If you don’t want to feed whole bone, it can be ground. Then it’s mostly a matter of knowing how much to use. If you stick to the balance of bone in a prey animal, you’ll be within the range of the natural diet.

When a supplement is used instead of bone imbalances may occur. Common supplements include bone meal, freeze dried bone (MCHA), and various products that are mostly Calcium with no Phosphorus. The examples in the tables below will help you sort out this issue for yourself.

Calcium and Phosphorus in bone and meat

Much of the Phosphorus in the prey animal is in the bone. The table below shows a typical analysis. A whole ground chicken contains about 1.4% Phosphorus. Just ground chicken, with no bone, is about .1%. About 90% of the Phosphorus in a whole animal is in the bone.

Percentages of Calcium and Phosphorus in chicken meat  or chicken with bone
Ground chicken no bone Ground whole chicken
Calcium %, Dry Matter basis .03% 2.2%

Phosphorus %, Dry Matter basis



Nutrient content of commercial meat-based diets should be evaluated on a caloric basis. Often, food is evaluated by weight. This can be misleading: if a food contains everything needed, but your dog only gets to eat half the recommended amount for his weight, is he getting everything he needs?

It’s more accurate to evaluate based on nutrients per 1000 calories. The table below shows how many grams of Calcium or Phosphorus are in 1000 calories of ground turkey and turkey necks, and compares those to AAFCO standards for all life stages and the amounts in the ancestral diet.

Grams of Calcium and Phosphorus per 1000 calories:
Ground turkey no bone Turkey neck Ancestral diet AAFCO min

All stages canine


0.1 grams

7.3 grams 5.7 grams 2.9 grams
Phosphorus 1.1 grams 4.1 grams 3.5 grams 2.3 grams

The table below compares ways suggested in various plans to complete diets that consist of meat only.

Recommended levels from the National Research Council (NRC) and AAFCO (the association that sets animal feed standards) are included for the purpose of comparison. Though these standards are not perfect, they do represent time tested, valid ideas about what levels of nutrients are needed to support life, as well as current knowledge about optimum nutrition. Numbers in the column labeled “Ancestral” are based on analysis in several studies of the actual diets of wild felines and canines.

If just eggshell powder is added to meat, the amount of Phosphorus is below the AAFCO minimum and below the NRC recommended level for puppies. The amount of Phosphorus in the Ancestral column shows a radically different number from that in those columns where only calcium is added. It’s clear that adding Calcium only does not meet either the levels of the ancestral diet, or the levels recommended for puppies by the NRC.

Comparison of Calcium and Phosphorus using 90% lean beef
AAFCO all stages


NRC puppy Ancestral


Meat only Meat + egg shell powder Meat + 2% Calcium from sea vegetation Meat + 2.5% bone meal
Calcium 2.9 gram 3.0 grams 5.7 grams 0.1 grams 3.1 grams 2.7 grams 3.1 grams
Phosphorus 2.3 grams 2.5 grams 3.5 grams 0.6 grams 0.6 grams 0.7 grams 1.7 grams

Calcium Phosphorus ratios are shown below. This is most important for growing puppies, but it seems sensible to try to stay in the range of the ratios recommended, which are much closer to the natural diet than they are to meat supplemented with products that lack significant Phosphorus.

Comparison of Calcium Phosphorus ratios

in meat only, meat with Calcium added, and meat with bone supplement added

AAFCO All stages


NRC puppy Ancestral


Meat only Meat + 2% eggshell powder Meat + 2% Calcium from sea vegetables Meat + 2.5% bone meal
Calcium to Phosphorus ratio 1.3 to 1 1.2 to 1 1.6 to 1 0.17 to 1 5.2 to 1 3.9 to 1 1.8 to 1

Now you have a lot of facts!

Comparing numbers like these can be confusing for the inexperienced! It might seem unlikely that you will ever need to know information this detailed, and perhaps you won’t. However, there are many “experts” giving diet advice. It’s easy to be swayed by what seems to sound good. After all, it’s an article in a magazine; it must be accurate, right? Not necessarily. With the facts above, you can better evaluate what you read and hear.

What’s the best plan? The balance of nutrients dogs and cats have thrived on for countless generations is likely to be the best answer. It’s a practical, sensible goal for your basic feeding program, easily adapted for the needs of individual animals. The numbers above use canine standards for the purpose of explanation. The amounts of these minerals are slightly different for cats.  See our book, Dr. Becker’s Real Food for Healthy Dogs and Cats, by Beth Taylor and Karen Becker, naturalpetproductions.com, for ways to make food that provides that natural balance.

Many thanks to Steve Brown for the tables and analysis. See his new book, Unlocking the Canine Ancestral Diet, seespotlivelonger.com, for lots of new information about fats!

We’re coming out of the hibernation season, out of the short night cycles that entice us to sleep and eat and hope the animals will cooperate. Some of us are truly great role models, keeping the fitness program going for the animals and the humans, reducing the amount of food to compensate for the reduction of exercise, or finding a way to exercise the dogs in the tall snow we have here in Illinois……but I am not one of those people. Now that the days are a little longer and I have a little more energy, I’m usually inspired to take stock and make plans for my year.

It’s a really good time to do the same for your animals. Take a week and log or journal everything you do with your animals. Write down everything you feed them and all the supplements you give them. You may be surprised at what you find.

This is not an activity to do while sitting in a chair thinking about it. You do it AS you do it….after you let the dogs out and they come back in one minute to watch you fix breakfast – that was their morning exercise. What you really put in the bowl – measure it after you dump the food in, eyeballing the amount. A cup? Maybe it was more, maybe it was less. The supplements AS you do them, not what you wrote on a grease-covered index card taped to the wall (my house). Your afternoon walk with the dogs….was that an hour or was that 20 minutes? Was that every day, as planned, or twice a week? In fitness terms, reduced exercise can result in loss of muscle and can affect general health, especially for the older set. By the end of the week your tattered records should provide material for you to evaluate.

Be warned: as soon as you start keeping track you will do better. This is a phenomenon in behavior modification programs that’s inevitable. I used to do this at the beginning of a diet, evaluating how many times I ate when I thought about eating. As soon as your awareness of the topic increases, your attention to action increases too. That’s ok. It can give you a jump-start to your new, improved, 2010 plan.

While you’re at it, dig up notes you may have, recommendations made by veterinarians or consultants over 2009, plans you made, programs you began – how did they go? What was successful and what fell off the list almost as soon as you put it on?

What supplements were you planning on giving? Do you remember what they were for? Look over your calendar from the last year and see what you did. Too much? Too little? What would you change? Easy to keep doing the same thing, but life changes and our animals change, and we do too.

I planned to do an acupressure massage on all my dogs twice a week. In reality, last winter the Ancient One got all the massage, because he had the greatest need. I was also sleeping on the floor with him and hauling him down the stairs with the help of a swim vest, and we were very tired. The girls got….not much. Maybe I was overly ambitious?? Woody is gone now, and they still need the massage. It’s a good plan to include for this year if I can.

Food drifts in amazing ways. Maybe you stuck to the great protein rotation you planned. Or maybe all that’s in your freezer is beef and chicken because it was too much trouble to do anything else. If you use commercial foods, did you change anything during the year? Did you see weight gain or loss? Have you looked closely at those labels? Your home made food plan deserves to be evaluated very closely. One place it’s easy to go astray is with recreational bones – anything to keep the furballs happy and quiet! Those calories really add up. For a while, glucosamine sulfate fell off the program at my house. The jar was empty and got thrown away before I opened a new one and….I forgot. If you’re lucky you won’t find anything like that!

When the week is over, and you have great notes about your daily life and your pet’s diets, and your records and ideas from the last year, you’ll have all the pieces you need to make a great plan for 2010.