The treatment of dog heartworm is much more difficult than the prevention of these parasites. Once a dog is infected with heartworms, the treatment and recovery period can be life-threatening and long. Recovery can take several weeks or even months and is not always possible.
Heartworm Recovery Facts
With extensive heartworm treatment, recovery becomes a lengthy process in order for your dog to overcome the infestation and become healthy again. Treatment actually occurs over several months to eliminate the larvae and the adult heartworms.
- Initially, an evaluation is conducted to determine the status of the dog's health and the seriousness of the heartworm infestation. The dog's overall health is taken into account before treatment begins.
- Depending upon your veterinarian's recommendations, your dog may be hospitalized from two to four days.
- Treatment consists of killing the adult worms first with a series of injections.
- After the heartworms are treated, they die slowly and gradually dissolve over a period of several weeks.
- Three or four weeks after the initial treatment, your dog will need to be brought back for treatment of the microfilaria; these are the baby heartworms. This can usually be handled during a one-day vet visit.
- After that, continued checkups and testing will follow, and the dog will be placed on heartworm preventative medication.
What to Expect During Recovery
After your dog has initially been treated for heartworms, it is essential that he is kept confined with limited activity levels for four weeks. After treatment, excessive activity and exercise can increase the risk of movement of the dead heartworms through the body, clogging the arteries, and creating serious heart and lung complications. After the first month has passed, you can encourage your dog to build up his strength with your vet's guidance and approval.
The recovery process can vary from one patient to another, but common recovery symptoms include the following:
- Lack of energy; sleepiness for several days - This will actually work to your advantage since you want to keep your dog quiet during his convalescence.
- Muscle soreness - The injection site might be sore for several days, so avoid touching it or putting any pressure around the area to keep your dog from experiencing unnecessary pain.
- Increased energy - Even though your dog may begin to feel better after a few days, it is still important that he rest and refrain from exercise, so you'll need to continue to confine him for the first month. This means no walks and no playtime. Put him on a leash to take him outside when necessary and then bring him back in. If you have problems limiting his activity level, confine him in a small area of the house or in a large crate.
Keeping Your Dog Calm
One of the tougher parts of heartworm recovery is keeping your dog quiet for a one-month period, which can be made harder if you have a younger, high energy dog. Some ideas for keeping your dog from overextending himself during this crucial period are:
- Train your dog to settle upon request. It's better to start this training before the procedure if possible. If the dog associates lying on his bed or in a crate as a positive thing, it will be easier to keep him quiet.
- You can also use training to keep your dog's brain engaged which can be just as tiring as physical exercise. Get out a clicker and spend a few short sessions each day teaching your dog some tricks or other behaviors that do not require a lot of physical activity.
- Use environmental cues to keep your dog relaxed, such as peaceful music or nature sounds.
- Food-stuffed toys and dog puzzles can occupy your dog's attention and keep him active while also in a relaxed position. Providing plenty of chew toys and chewing products like antlers are also a great low-stress activity.
- Try to spend time with your dog down by his crate or bed to keep him from wanting to get up and run around. For example, you can lay down next to him and read a book or bring your tablet or laptop, or bring your dog's bed next to the couch (or on the couch) while you watch TV.
Monitor Your Dog's Health
You should watch your dog closely for signs of any potential problems during the recovery period:
- Pay attention to his behavior. Does his energy continue to increase?
- Look at his gums. They should be pink, not very white or red. If you notice any changes, contact your vet.
- Listen to his breathing. Does he continue to cough and/or have difficulty breathing? If so, contact your vet immediately. Also, contact your vet if you notice your dog running a fever or acting as if he is ill.
- Contact your vet right away if your dog begins vomiting, has diarrhea or appears lethargic and depressed.
Recovery and Anesthesia
For dogs that require surgical intervention to remove heartworms, extra care during recovery will be necessary due to anesthesia.
- Using anesthesia on a dog with a heartworm infestation is risky but unfortunately also necessary in order to do the surgery.
- There has been research done to show that using sedating medications can reduce the amount of anesthesia needed and decrease the risk to dogs with heartworm although this still will not negate the need for intensive aftercare.
- These dogs will need to be kept in an ICU setting for a day or more post surgery and will require constant monitoring by veterinary staff.
- Their recovery time in the ICU may include blood transfusions, oxygen therapy and additional medications to keep their heart from failing.
Recovery and Preventative Medication
If your veterinarian determines that the infestation is not fully cleared, he may require your dog to go through a second round of treatment after six months. Whether your dog's infection is cleared up during the first or second round, your veterinarian will prescribe preventative medication for your dog to stay on for the rest of his life. Your dog will need to start the preventative medication during the recovery period as it can take several months for a dog to get the "all clear" from heartworm testing. Taking a preventative right away can ensure that a new infection does not take hold while waiting for the next test.
Heartworms are life-threatening, and the treatment and recovery period can be long and tough on a dog of any age. Thankfully the success rate of treatment is approximately 98% and those dogs that have not fully cleared the worm infestation can go through additional treatment for a complete recovery. Follow your veterinarian's instructions and prepare for the long period of quiet time your dog will need to be on to recover fully.