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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


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