Low Cost Heartworm Treatment: Options for Pet Owners

dog having foreleg prepped for an injection.
Author: Natalie Kienzle
Posted: December 6, 2023
Modified: December 6, 2023

If you’re a pet owner in need of low cost heartworm treatment, you may be wondering where to turn. Fortunately, there are resources available right here in Ocala to help you provide your furry friend with the care they require. The VOCAL Community Clinic and Resource Center is here to support families in Marion County who may be struggling to keep up with veterinary costs.

Organizations like the American Heartworm Society (AHS) support that providing low cost heartworm treatment is vital to ensure all pets, regardless of their owners’ financial status, can access life-saving care. This helps prevent the spread of the disease within the environment and helps owners obtain the necessary support.

Life-saving heartworm treatment can be expensive. We’re exploring why and how you can still have hope through VOCAL’s commitment to providing animal welfare services within our Ocala and Marion County Community. 

Understanding Heartworm Disease: Where it Comes From

If you are a pet owner, it is essential to understand heartworm disease and its effects. Heartworms are parasites that travel to the heart and lungs of infected animals, like dogs and cats, where they grow to full size.

In that sense, heartworm disease is more of an intense parasitic infestation. Larvae, known as microfilaria, are transmitted through mosquito bites. Once they reach the bloodstream, they grow and reproduce. Larvae mature into adult worms within the heart and pulmonary arteries, causing severe damage to it and the lungs.

Adult heartworms have the potential to reach up to 12 inches in length and may remain undetected in a host for several years. During this time, pet owners may not even be aware their pet is sick. Once symptoms do appear, treatment becomes critical. 

What Are the Symptoms of Heartworm Disease?

There are rarely any outward symptoms of heartworm disease during the early stages. As it progresses, it can cause severe damage to internal organs. 

The common noticeable symptoms of heartworm disease include:

  • Coughing 
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite. 

In its final stages, heartworm disease leads to heart failure and death.

At VOCAL, we understand the importance of detecting and treating this disease as early as possible. We offer low-cost heartworm testing and treatment options for pet owners in the Ocala, FL area. 

Our goal is to improve animal welfare and provide affordable healthcare options for all pets. 

low cost heartworm treatment dog having blood drawn for test

How Do You Diagnosis a Heartworm Infection?

If you’re worried your pet is positive for heartworm, or has been off regular heartworm prevention, you should have them tested. Early detection and treatment can help prevent serious complications from heartworm disease.

A veterinarian can run a test that will confirm whether your pet is carrying heartworm larvae. 

In this section, we will discuss the heartworm testing process and the stages of heartworm disease.

Heartworm Testing

The most common way to test for heartworm disease is through bloodwork. A basic blood test looks for antigens that are a byproduct of female heartworms.

It’s recommended to test your pet six months after the last potential exposure since it can take that long for the parasites to mature enough to be detectable. When results are positive, additional testing, such as x-rays, are recommended to determine the severity of the infection.

What are the Stages of Heartworm Disease

Heartworm disease has four stages, ranging from least to most severe. 

  • Stage 1: There may be no symptoms or only mild symptoms such as occasional coughing. 
  • Stage 2:  Owners may notice moderate symptoms such as coughing, especially during times of heightened physical activity. It’s easy for owners to overlook symptoms at this stage, believing them to be related to the exercise.
  • Stage 3: This is when symptoms grow in severity and coughing, low physical activity, and difficulty breathing become obvious even during periods of rest. 
  • Stage 4: Serious complications come up, such as heart failure, liver failure, and fluid build up in the abdomen.

If your pet tests positive for heartworm disease, a veterinarian will work with you to determine the best course of treatment based on the stage of the disease. 

However, treatment can be costly, prohibitively so for many families no matter how much they love their pets. The best (and least expensive way) to handle heartworm disease, is simply to prevent it in the first place. 

Preventative Measures Against Heartworm

One of the most effective ways to prevent heartworm disease is through the use of heartworm preventative medication. These medications are available in different forms, including tablets, injections, and topical solutions. 

Monthly preventatives are over 99% effective, and a six-month supply costs between $30 to $70. 

These preventative medication works by killing the immature heartworm larvae that are transmitted to your pet through mosquito bites. Most types must be given to dogs and cats monthly. 

Lifestyle Adjustments for Prevention

In addition to heartworm preventative medication, there are lifestyle adjustments that you can make to reduce the risk of heartworm disease in your pet. In Florida, where mosquitos are pretty much everywhere, and can survive in some places year-round, these steps make a difference. 

What you can do:

  • Try to avoid collecting standing water, which serves as a breeding ground for mosquitoes.
  • Look into various mosquito repellent products designed for pets which can serve as an extra layer of protection once they’re on preventatives. 
  • Schedule regular check-ups with a veterinarian or clinic that can to monitor your pet’s health, test for heartworm, and recommend preventatives. 

Done in combination, you can significantly reduce the risk of heartworm disease in your pet and ensure their continued health and well-being.

The Heartworm Treatment Process

If you do find yourself dealing with a heartworm positive pet, time is of the essence.  

In this section, we will go over the most common treatments and the follow-up and retesting process. We also feel it’s essential to mention that true treatment is only possible for dogs. To date, there is no veterinary-approved treatment for heartworm positive cats, only supportive care.

Treatment Steps

Fair warning to readers, heartworm treatment is tough on a dog’s body. The heartworms within a dog’s system must be attacked systematically, targeting larvae and then adult worms. 

The aggressiveness of any treatment plan may vary slightly depending on what stage of infection your pet is in. 

A typical treatment, not involving surgery, usually follows these steps:

  1. In the first month, a dose of ivermectin, or something similar, to begin killing off heartworm larvae. 
  2. A 28-day antibiotic regimen, most doctors will use doxycycline, to fight off infections within the heart and lungs and enhance the clearing of microfilaria. 
  3. On days 60, 90, and 91 adult heartworms are targeted with melarsomine, an arsenic-based compound that’s injected directly into the muscle. 

If a three-step melarsomine treatment isn’t possible; there is also a two-dose protocol. It’s those injections that are the toughest step to handle. The arsenic base of the injections does kill off the heartworm, but dogs must be carefully monitored during and after the process. 

While your dog is going through treatment, it’s also vital that their movement and general exercise be restricted.

This is most easily done by:

  • Walking pets on a leash when they need to go outside
  • Crating the pet when they are not being walked

Too much physical activity when going through the melarsomine can lead to serious complications, which we’ll discuss next. 

dog held in a kennel to restrict movement and exercise.

Potential Complications and Side Effects

While we hope (and likely pray a little too) that your pet’s heartworm treatment will go smoothly, there are some serious complications owners should be aware of.

Common complications include:

  • Localized injection-site reactions: Usually consisting of pain or swelling, there is also a risk of sterile abscesses.
  • Pulmonary Thromboembolism (PTE): The sudden death of many heartworms can lead to blockages in the lungs, which can prove fatal.
  • Coughing: Commonly noticeable for seven to eight weeks following the injection as the body responds to the treatment and the presence of dead worms. 
  • Difficulty breathing, lethargy, collapse: These are severe side effects that may be a sign of severe intolerance to the medications being given.
  • Sudden death: Increased physical activity can lead to a rapid increase in dead worm fragments in the lungs’ blood vessels, which can be fatal.

Some of these side effects, such as PTE, are greatly reduced by restricting exercise and physical activity. 

Other helpful practices to reduce the possibility of severe side effects include: 

  • A diet to help heavy pets lose weight relieves added pressure on the heart
  • Pain medication or steroids to alleviate swelling and pain
  • Natural supplements recommended by a veterinarian to boost up their immune system
  • Providing plenty of fresh water to keep them hydrated
  • A comfortable place to lay where they stay calm
  • Gentle massage to ease discomfort in limbs and muscles

No treatment is ever guaranteed to be 100% effective or safe. Sadly, there are pets that simply don’t survive despite everyone’s best efforts. The condition may be caught too late, or a pet simply has a severe reaction to the medication.

Overall, heartworm treatment can come with potential complications and side effects. Thankfully, success stories are more common and the benefits of treatment end up far outweighing the risks.

Follow-up and Retesting

After the initial treatment, dogs are retested to determine if the heartworms have been eliminated. If the test comes back negative, it’s vital that they be placed on a regular heartworm preventative. 

Surviving heartworm will not make your dog immune to further infestations. They will be just as prone to infection as any other pet that isn’t taking a preventative. 

It is important to follow up with a veterinarian regularly to ensure that your pet remains healthy. They may end up recommending additional testing or treatment if necessary.

It will take time and a great deal of patience, but it is possible to successfully treat your pet for heartworm and get them back to their happy, playful selves. 

Smiling veterinarian holding a happy dog

Low Cost Heartworm Treatment Options

At VOCAL, you can expect to receive compassionate care from experienced veterinary professionals who are dedicated to helping you keep your pet healthy. We offer heartworm treatment options to suit different needs and budgets, and can work with you to develop a treatment and payment that allows you to get your pet the help it needs. 

Heartworm is a serious and potentially life-threatening condition for pets, and we focus on making treatment accessible to all pet owners regardless of their financial situation. 

We also provide a variety of other low-cost veterinary services and pet welfare assistance:

  • Spay and neuter operations
  • TNR programs for colony cats
  • Drive-thru vaccine clinics
  • Heartworm testing
  • A pet food bank
  • Microchip services
  • Pet adoptions 

Whether you need to get your pet treatment for an existing infection, or looking for a way to start a regular preventative, VOCAL can help.

Remember, delaying treatment can lead to serious health complications for your pet. If you’re struggling to afford heartworm treatment, don’t hesitate to reach out for help.

Contact us directly at (352) 640-7387 or email clinic@vocalforpets.org.  

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