Margaret was shocked when her golden retriever Rudy was diagnosed with heartworm. “I didn’t think it would be a problem we’d ever have to deal with, so it came as a real surprise.” Rudy recovered with treatment, but the experience made Margaret take heartworm more seriously, and to educate herself about ways to prevent and treat the disease.
Heartworm is the most common parasitic infection of the canine circulatory system. Fortunately, it is easily prevented, and when treatment is necessary, conventional medicines can be integrated with natural therapies. While heartworm can also affect cats, it’s more often found in dogs.
Traditional prevention and treatment
It’s currently recommended that all dogs take monthly heartworm preventive medication. This is necessary year round where I live in Texas, but in other parts of North America, the medication is only needed during the warmer months. Find out how prevalent heartworm is in your area, and ask your vet for guidance on when your companion should take the preventive.
The most commonly prescribed oral medications utilize ivermectin or milbemycin. While topical spot-on medications can be used, holistic veterinarians tend to prefer the oral monthly variety. That way, the medication only stays in the dog’s body a few days rather than the entire month, which is the situation with spot-on medications.
Compared to other medications, oral heartworm preventives are quite safe. The dose needed to prevent infection and disease is very tiny, approximately 1/30 of that necessary to treat other parasitic diseases.
Conventional treatment uses a drug called Immiticide (melarsomine), a potent medication that must be given deep in the back muscles of the dog. While this drug is safer than the one formerly used (Caparsolate, an arsenic compound) it must still be administered carefully under a veterinarian’s supervision, since side effects can occur.
What about natural approaches?
In researching my book The Natural Health Bible for Dogs & Cats, I tried to find documented proof of natural remedies recommended for the prevention and treatment of heartworm infection. Anecdotal evidence suggests that herbs such as garlic, black walnut and wormwood, and the homeopathic heartworm nosode, may actually prevent as well as treat heartworm infection.
Unfortunately, I have not yet been able to find substantive proof that these therapies can reliably and safely prevent or treat infection or disease. For example, simply because a dog has been given a natural preventive and never develops a positive heartworm test doesn’t prove the therapy works. Many dogs not taking heartworm preventive medication, either conventional or natural, will never become infected with heartworms. The only way to “prove” a natural preventive is to follow the same protocol used to “prove” a conventional medication: administering it to a large group of dogs and then intentionally trying to infect them with heartworm larvae and recording the number of positive and negative cases.
The same problem arises when trying to evaluate natural therapies to treat heartworm. With time, dogs that are not killed by infections will eventually test negative due to the natural death of the parasites. Without treating a large number of heartworm positive dogs with natural therapies, then proving they show a negative result on a heartworm test, it’s impossible to recommend a natural heartworm therapy.
Reducing the risk
Having said that, there are a number of things you can do to reduce the chances of your dog developing heartworm infection, or to minimize side effects from conventional treatment.
• Reduce the frequency of vaccinations, feed your dog a healthy diet, and use antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids to reduce inflammation and oxidation. This will improve your dog’s overall health and make it less likely that heartworm infection could develop into disease.
• Take your dog for regular veterinary visits and blood tests to allow for early diagnosis of heartworm. The sooner it’s diagnosed, the less likely the infection will turn into disease.
• Limit your dog’s exposure to mosquitoes. They can be controlled naturally with citrus oils, cedar oils and diatomaceous earth.
• Dogs needing conventional heartworm treatment may benefit from herbs such as milk thistle and homeopathics such as berberis; these minimize toxicity from the medications and dying heartworms.
In my practice, monthly oral heartworm preventives combined with minimal vaccines, a natural diet, and a sound nutritional supplement regimen work very well to prevent infection. The rare dogs I see with heartworm disease do best when conventional treatment is combined with nutritional supplements, herbs and homeopathics to support their immune systems and detoxify the byproducts of the medication.
Infection vs . disease
There is a difference between heartworm infection and disease. Dogs infected with the parasite but not showing clinical signs are considered to have heartworm infection rather than heartworm disease. These dogs are less likely to have side effects from therapy because they are not currently sick. Dogs with heartworm disease show clinical signs and must be treated more carefully.
Veterinarian Dr. Shawn Messonnier wrote The Natural Health Bible for Dogs and Cats, The Natural Vet's Guide to Preventing and Treating Cancer in Dogs, and 8 Weeks to a Healthy Dog. He's the pet care expert for Martha Stewart Living's "Dr. Shawn — The Natural Vet" on Sirius Satellite Radio, and creator of Dr. Shawn's Pet Organics. His practice, Paws & Claws Animal Hospital (petcarenaturally.com), is in Plano, Texas.