Getting to the Heart (worm) of the Matter

Texas Special! That’s how the dog rescue described her. We knew rather quickly that their description sure was right! Callie, a petite light brown cutie, resembled more of a fawn than she did a mixed-breed dog. Since she was indeed a member of the canine family, the rescue had no choice but to label her as a certain breed. All guesses were on! The rescue did their best and classified her as a beagle mix. As for me, and then later my vet, we both had her pegged as part of the whippet family. Boy, were we all wrong!

It turns out her slender frame wasn’t exactly bred, but rather the result of being malnourished during her time as a stray in Texas. Her diminutive frame proved not everything is bigger in Texas. She was one tiny dog lost in the largest state. Shortly after being rescued, she was trucked up north. Now, she had arrived in the smallest state, Rhode Island (via a short stint in Massachusetts). Rhode Island, the smallest state, is where she would realize she was a larger dog than she appeared to be. In Rhode Island, she would find her forever home with us and we would all learn the specifics of her true heritage.

This slight 22-pound part beagle we rescued from Texas was really a 30-pound Chihuahua, Staffordshire terrier, Miniature Schnauzer mix. Thanks to plenty of love, food, and a canine DNA test, our little fawn dog had shed her (would be, could be) whippet skin, soon to be replaced by thick muscles and a plush velvety coat worthy of a healthy young deer. I know, I know, the DNA revealed not one bit of deer ancestry, but with her long, dainty brown legs highlighted in white, black button nose, and sweet brown eyes, our pretty Callie still very much resembled one.

When we met her and a while after adopting her, Callie was very timid and shy. It didn’t take her very long to learn to trust us. In fact, she learned to trust us so much that she wanted us around 24/7! When we weren’t with her, she displayed symptoms of separation anxiety including, excessive barking, drooling, accidents in the house, and digging at doors. Upon our vet’s recommendation and the severity of her anxiety, we worked through these issues for months with a dog behaviorist. Through repetition, time, and plenty of love, Callie learned to trust us and her new home.

During this time, she also physically appeared to blossom and looked much healthier. The extra treats we used during training sessions helped her bulk up quickly. So much so, a slight roll was even noticeable around her girth. Miss Callie was fat and happy, as they say! Even the remnants of her former life, including the tattooed number the rescue in Texas had applied as a forever brand on her belly, was starting to be less noticeable. Sprouts of new white hairs now covered her once bare pink-skinned, branded belly. She looked good. She looked very good, but as we all know, looks can be deceiving. Inside, there was a lot going on. What we couldn’t see and what the early tests didn’t show us was the presence of something nefarious; worms.

These worms were not the nasty intestinal type that are gross in their own way. These worms were the more devastating ones you never want to hear your dog has; Heartworms. “How could this be?” I asked my vet in stunned disbelief. Since she had come to us from the rescue with a heartworm negative test, and we had faithfully given her preventative heartworm meds since we had adopted her, it just didn’t seem feasible. With a solemn, yet caring face, my vet told me that unfortunately, they are seeing positive heartworm tests more and more. They are especially seeing this with dogs coming up from the south where heartworm infection is naturally more prevalent. She explained that dogs already infected by the bite of a mosquito can, in fact, test negative. Even though the immature heartworms were present when the rescue tested her, it would take around seven months for the worms to mature into adults. It would be the presence of adult worms that would trigger the test to return a positive result. Unfortunately, false negatives are becoming all too common.

I was shocked, sad, and scared. Callie looked at me with her trusting brown eyes as I listened to the vet say treatment would be tough, with the most dangerous part coming from the dying worms. She said the dead worms could clot together, and potentially block blood flow to Callie’s lungs, heart and/or brain (just as a traditional blood clot could do). The treatment she would have to go through included receiving three painful deep muscle shots of arsenic, with a day’s stay after each at the vet’s office. Start to finish, I was told the treatment would be a four-month span of meds, shots, and limited exercise (limited to the point of doing her “business” and returning to her bed). She assured me that since she was a young and healthy dog, she had an excellent chance of getting through the treatment and corresponding recovery. The day she was diagnosed as heartworm positive, I left the vet’s office with an antibiotic to start immediately. The antibiotic was to be given for a month to kill the bacteria that live on the outside of the heartworms. Once these protective bacteria died, the worms would be in a weakened state, and potentially easier targets for the arsenic shots to kill them off. It would be a one-two punch to those nasty worms!

After the month of antibiotic was complete, it was then time for the first shot. They x-rayed her heart and lungs to see the amount of infestation of worms. Thankfully, her x-rays appeared clear, indicating a lower number of worms present at the time of treatment. They shaved Callie on her rump the width of a pair of clippers and about three to four inches in length.

Other than this odd haircut and apparent soreness with even the slightest movement, Callie looked and acted like herself when she came home that night. The muscle soreness from the shot was evident by her hesitancy to jump or move very quickly. These symptoms lasted a couple days, but the pain meds really helped to make her more comfortable. Next came a month of no activity – only leash walks were allowed to do her “business” then it was straight back into bed – veterinarian’s strict orders!

This lack of activity got harder and harder to maintain since Callie is a young dog who started to feel better a couple days after the first shot. One long month later and it was back for the second shot and another day’s stay at the vet’s office. She now had a matching shave mark on her other rump, and she was again sore and hesitant to jump but was comforted by the pain medication prescribed. The very next morning it was back to the vet’s again (I’m happy we live nearby!) for the third and final shot. Thankfully, like the previous two times, she was allowed to eat before treatment, so at least that part of her routine was known (and very much appreciated by my chowhound!).

After one more long stay at the vet’s office, it was home that night with more pain meds and a whole lot of patience (from her and us!). This started our second month of limited activity. For the most part, Callie was very good, but she’s also a dog, and dogs can only take so much inactivity. After a few episodes of hyper jumping and running, followed by a couple bouts of coughing, she left us fearful she was okay. With bated breath we waited, hoping that she wasn’t throwing a worm clot as we’d been warned may happen. With her settled back in her bed, calm and relaxed, we all breathed a little easier.

At the one-month checkup, Callie received a glowing report. Since her heart and lungs sounded great, we got the okay to go for leash walks (outside the confines of our yard – hooray!). This was music to all our ears! Callie has wasted no time prancing her way back to health, but now we must wait for 9 months to be retested. This is the only way to see if the treatment worked and has indeed killed all the heartworms. In the meantime, she gets her monthly heartworm preventative medication. After all, it only takes one mosquito bite to start the grueling process of heartworm infestation.

Finding out your dog has heartworms is not necessarily a death sentence, although sadly, it can be. In the least, it is a very long, arduous process. It’s hard on the owners, and super hard on the innocent pups. We’ll now be spending the next 9 months walking, jumping, and playing our way toward the words we so hope to hear from our veterinarian – treatment was successful! Callie is officially heartworm negative!

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