The High Cost of Heartworm Disease
In 1991, I was not a quick study. That summer, Obi, my 5-year-old, athletic golden retriever, surged toward his life’s passion — a perpetually soggy tennis ball — and fell hard on his side. The second time it happened, I thought about taking him to the veterinarian. The third time I did. Both Obi and Penny, my steadfast, senior golden, were diagnosed with heartworm disease.
Mosquitoes deliver heartworm, and in 1991, I lived on a lake in Northern Wisconsin — a lake I firmly believe is second only to the Minnesota 10,000 in terms of mosquito population. Even so, I didn’t have either dog on preventive medication.
The American Heartworm Society and the Companion Animal Parasite Council recommend that all pets receive year-round heartworm protection so that pets are protected every month. It is critical that doses not be skipped or intervals between doses be extended because this results in an unprotected time during which animals may be exposed to heartworm larvae. Pets should also have annual heartworm testing by a veterinarian prior to prescribing a heartworm medication.
I knew that the heartworms – parasitic worms that live in the heart and lungs – could kill my dogs. What I didn’t know was that the treatment could too. My veterinarian explained that the dogs would need four injections of an arsenic compound. To me, it sounded like she was going to poison the dogs and hope the worms died first.
But the alternative was worse, so she pushed chemicals into them for two days. When I lay down next to Penny, I could feel her shaking. Both dogs suffered.
For the next six weeks, they coughed, gagged, and vomited as the dead worms broke apart. An increase in heart rate at just the wrong time could have sent a chunk of dead worms to the lungs, killing the dog, so they had to be confined to their kennels for all but a few minutes a day.
You Do the Math
The cost of treatment depends on your dog’s size; where you live; whether your dog needs X-rays, blood tests, or additional medication; and how long your dog is at the hospital. The cost of preventives also depends on your dog’s weight, as well as the type of preventive you choose.
Cost of preventive: $5–$15 per month
Cost of treatment: $400–$1,000
Heartworm has been found worldwide, including in all 50 states. Left untreated The American Heartworm Society recommends using preventive year-round.
I got lucky; they both survived, but it shouldn’t have come to that. Heartworm preventives are just shy of 100% effective, and I was not new to dog ownership. But, like so many other pet owners, I balked at the cost.
I was in college and I couldn’t afford the annual blood tests or the monthly tablets for two dogs upwards of 70 pounds. At least that’s what I had told my veterinarian that spring. Yet when she told me the dogs needed to be treated for heartworm, I asked When? not How much?
Up until that point, I didn’t really believe my dogs would end up with heartworm. I understood it was possible, but I wasn’t convinced their lives were at risk. I wasn’t scared. If I had known the truth about the condition, the cost for the preventive treatments would not have the deciding factor. And if I had known how heartworm disease was treated — how hard it is on the animal, that there are no guarantees of survival— cost wouldn’t have been a consideration at all.
Molly, my current golden, would back me up on that, but she’s busy chasing tennis balls.
Revised and updated Dec. 18, 2012.