Heartworm can be deadly for dogs. Here's how to protect your pet.

A monthly pill can save a dog's life, Aztec Animal Shelter Director Tina Roper says

Hannah Grover
Farmington Daily Times
  • A blood test can tell if a dog has heartworm.

FARMINGTON — Local animal shelters are reporting a high number of heartworm cases this year, but in Farmington the rise was traced to a group of dogs that came from another state.

Aztec Animal Shelter Director Tina Roper said five dogs at her shelter have tested positive for heartworm this year.

"It's a little high," she said. "We don't usually see this many so soon."

Farmington Regional Animal Shelter currently has nine heartworm positive dogs and recently had one adopted.

“We usually have anywhere from two to four at a time,” Shelter Director Stacie Voss said.

Louisiana dogs at Farmington shelter test positive for heartworm

Farmington Regional Animal Shelter's high number is largely due to an influx of dogs from Louisiana. Only two of the dogs at the Farmington Regional Animal Shelter came from San Juan County, Voss said.

Voss said a rescuer from Louisiana drove dogs up to try to host an adoption event in Colorado. When the rescuer was unable to adopt the dogs out in Colorado, the rescuer brought them to the Farmington Regional Animal Shelter. Voss said eight of the nine dogs from Louisiana tested positive for heartworm.

A dog named Crash Bandicoot is tested for heartworm, Monday, May 13, 2019, at Farmington Regional Animal Shelter.

Voss said New Mexico does not have the high prevalence of heartworm that Louisiana has, but the disease is still a concern. 

“We have heartworm in the area and everyone should be aware of it and have their dogs on prevention,” Voss said.

The northwest corner of the state generally has higher heartworm rates than many other parts of New Mexico, according to the maps released by the American Heartworm Society. The American Heartworm Society analyzes data and releases maps every three years. According to those maps, Farmington clinics tend to report between six and 25 cases of heartworm each year. Meanwhile, most New Mexico clinics report between one and five cases annually.

What is heartworm?

Heartworm is a parasite transferred to dogs through mosquitos. It is called heartworm because the worm is generally found in the heart, lungs and associated blood vessels. The adult worms can measure up to a foot or more in length and cause lung disease, heart failure and organ damage.

"It's deadly," Roper said. "If left untreated, it can kill them."

Voss said the dog generally doesn’t show symptoms of heartworm until the parasitic infection is fairly well advanced. At that time, the dog will cough and show signs of heart failure. These symptoms can include frequent fatigue or weight loss.

Farmington Regional Animal Shelter Animal Care and Enrichment Coordinator Steven West holds a dog named Crash Bandicoot, Monday, May 13, 2019, while Community Program Coordinator Amber Francisco draws blood for a heartworm test.

How can it be prevented?

“It’s so important to get your dogs tested for (heartworm) and it’s a simple little pill once a month to prevent it,” said Aztec Animal Shelter Director Tina Roper.

The monthly preventative kills immature heartworm. 

Voss said the only proven way of preventing heartworm is a prescription from the veterinarian. She said homeopathic preventatives have not been proven effective against heartworm, and mosquito repellants can wash off.

Before the dog can start taking heartworm preventatives, it will need to be tested for heartworm. If the dog tests positive for heartworm, it will need treatment.

How does the test work?

Dogs should be tested for heartworm on an annual basis. Voss said the dog must be at least six months old to be tested. She explained that dogs younger than six months old will not test positive for heartworm.

A veterinarian will draw blood from the dog’s foreleg. The blood is then placed on a strip that tests for the proteins associated with heartworm. It takes a couple minutes for the test to show if the dog is positive or negative for heartworm.

A drop of blood is placed on a heartworm test strip to determine if Crash Bandicoot has heartworm.

How is it treated in dogs?

If the dog tests positive for heartworm, the treatment takes more than a month. Voss said the treatment starts with antibiotics to treat the heartworm-related bacteria. Then injections begin to kill the adult worms. 

When that happens, the dog’s activity will need to be monitored. Voss said the treatment kills the adult worms and causes them to break into pieces. If the dog is active, a piece of the worm could come loose and act as a blood clot.

How can people help shelters treating heartworm positive dogs?

Voss said the shelter needs fosters willing to take in the heartworm positive dogs while the canines are being treated. The treatment is at least 30 to 40 days.

“That takes up a lot of cage space for a long period of time,” Voss said.

Roper said it would be good to have fosters that could provide quiet environments for heartworm positive dogs.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at hgrover@daily-times.com.

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