Heartworms are some pretty nasty parasites, straight out of creepy crawly nightmares and mosquito-borne terrors. Any pet owner has probably been schooled many times in the dangers of heartworms and been scared shitless of them by their vets – and been made to feel guilty if you’ve opted to skip the preventative treatment. Which is, of course, ridiculous. My biggest pet peeve when it comes to pet parentship is being made to feel guilty about my petcare choices, and our vet is the conductor of the heartworm guilt trip.
Banner is my first dog, and so I really knew nothing about dog ownership until my fiance called me at work one day and said he’d be picking up a puppy the next day. I’ve therefore done a lot of research in the 8 months we’ve had him in preparation for my endless war with the vet over his healthcare. After a while, however, I got smug in my holistic petcare knowledge and slacked off on my research, and when we brought him in yesterday for his last puppy shot, I had few facts in my arsenal for the Great Heartworm War. I will admit that nothing has scared me quite as badly as her heartworm talk, and the ASPCA website only worsened my fear. Larvae carried and deposited in my dog’s bloodstream by mosquitoes? Foot-long worms crowding his heart and lungs? Labored breathing, blood obstructions, death? These things mean business.
Luckily, there are a lot of great resources out there that helped allay my fears. Dr. Becker, who partners with Dr. Mercola on his website, is my go-to source for holistic petcare wisdom. She begins her article on heartworm prevention by reassuring her readers that instances of heartworm are definitely not as common as your vet makes them out to be: The American Heartworm Society has an incidence map which depicts the frequency of heartworm infections. Your dog really isn’t at high risk unless you live in southern Texas, Florida, or some areas near the Gulf. There are pretty specific environmental conditions that have to be met for heartworms to breed (the temperature cannot drop below around 57 degrees F) and your dog has to be bitten by a specific type of mosquito that happened to have bitten an infected dog within the past 2 weeks. So even if you live in a risky area, the chances of infection drop significantly in the colder months.
If you do live in a risky area, and even if you’d rather just be safe than sorry, there are much better preventative methods than pharmeceuticals. Ivermectin, the active ingredient in most heartworm meds including Ivomec, Heartgard, Zimectrin,Iverhart, and Tri-Heart, is not even a preventative; it is an insecticide that causes neurological damage to heartworm larvae, paralyzes them, and kills them. And it comes with a list of side effects that I am not willing to deal with. The most common complications are vomitting, diarrhea, reduced appetite, and lethargy. In some cases, ivermectin can cause shock-like symptoms like severe vomitting, hypothermia, and depression as well as nervous system damage that causes loss of coordination, seizures, and even death.
Have no fear! Not only are heartworms pretty hard to contract, but they’re also extremely easy to prevent – and there are lots of natural remedies should your dog actually get infected. Hippocrates said it best when he said, “Let food be thy medicine.” The best prevention is a healthy diet. By feeding your dog real (if not raw) foods devoid of preservatives, rendered scraps, and artificial ingredients, you not only boost their immune system, but you give their kidneys and liver a leg up in the detox process by limiting the amount of toxins they have to cycle out. Limiting the amount of pharmaceutical toxins (flea & tick sprays, medicines, vaccines) in their system also helps keep their immune system in prime condition. TheWholeDog, a great resource for holistic petcare, makes a great point:
The heartworm has been out there forever as far as we know, but we don’t read reports of wolves and coyotes being wiped out by heartworm, and yet domestic dogs are falling prey to it… Surely they are healthier than the wild canines, with all our feeding of ‘scientifically balanced,’ processed foods and vaccinating them to prevent them from getting all the nasty and sometimes fatal diseases, right? … Wrong!
If you want to take extra measures to protect your dog, there are several safe options. While most resources agree that the best prevention is keeping your dog healthy and limiting his exposure to toxins, there are homeopathic and herbal remedies that can help. Dr. Jeffrey Levy recommends heartworm nosodes, which is a homeopathic treatment. The homeopathic vets at TheWholeDog suggest several herbs, including Mugwort (Artemisia), Clove Flower Buds, Garlic, Spearmint, Turmeric, Black Walnut, and Wormwood. They also stress the immune-enhancing benefits of Colostrum, or “first milk,” and fulvic acid, an antioxidant-rich compound extracted from humus, the material produced by decaying organic matter. The herbal experts at TheHerbPlace recommend Mugwort and Garlic as internal treatments (Garlic helps repel mosquitoes and boosts immune function while Mugwort is a natural insecticide) and Geranium oil as a topical mosquito repellant. Most of these can be found at your local health food store or online.
Next time we take Banner to the vet (which will hopefully not be until he needs his next rabies shot) I’ll have a full list of reasons why I’m not giving my puppy heartworm meds. We spend too much money on good, wholesome food for him to ruin his body with toxic drugs that do more harm than good. I’m head over heels in love with this pup, and I want to keep him around as long as possible. And that means keeping him as healthy as possible – and as far away from Big Pharma’s toxic claws as I can.