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Protect pets from life-threatening heartworm

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It's a fact of life in Manitoba -- nothing can suck the joy out of summer more than a bumper crop of mosquitoes.

And while the bloodthirsty bugs can drive humans away from patios and backyards, they also pose a potentially lethal problem for our pets.

Veterinarian Dr. Jim Broughton, owner of Exclusively Cats Animal Hospital on Corydon Avenue, says that while the main mosquito invasion has yet to hit, he's already seeing a sharp rise in feline patients affected by the buzzing bugs.

"I'm already seeing more patients with reactions to mosquito bites than I've seen in the last two or three years," Broughton says in an interview. "The ones I see are severe because they require medical attention. There are a lot more that I don't see."

While an animal's furry coat offers some protection, the veterinarian says mosquitoes will target vulnerable areas, such as the bridge of the nose and around a pet's ears and eyes.

"It tends to affect the areas of the body mosquitoes can get at," Broughton says. "With dogs, we'll see a lot of reactions on the underside of their bellies, too. We'll see little raised lumps and red areas and they're itchy and sore. It's the same with humans."

But he notes localized skin reactions can develop into something more serious. "It's like some people," he says. "Some animals can have an extreme reaction to bites and that can cause a lot of pain, swelling, inflammation and infection... you can see some hair loss from itching and scratching."

The more a pet is bitten, the more severe a reaction can be. "It may not happen the first time, but animals can become sensitized over time," the vet says. "With increasing infestations like this year, it can pose a greater threat as animals become more sensitized."

While skin irritations are annoying, dogs also run the risk of contracting heartworm, a serious and potentially fatal condition caused by parasitic worms that infest the heart and blood vessels after an animal is bitten by an infected mosquito.

"The adult worms make their home within the heart and basically clog up the heart and cause it to fail, leading to death if left untreated," Broughton says.

Dogs are at far greater risk of being infected than cats. "They (cats) are naturally immune to the parasite, but there are cases where cats contract it," he said. "When they get it, it's a much less serious version of the disease. With cats it may just be a case of a few worms, whereas with dogs they will usually develop hundreds of worms in the heart."

He says dog owners should have their pets on some form of heartworm prevention medication from June to November. My own dogs, for instance, take Heartgard, a once-a-month chewable pill to protect them from the parasites.

"Prevention is the key, because if it's diagnosed early enough, the disease can usually be cured," Broughton says. "At the end of the day, we can successfully treat and cure the disease. The preventive medications are extremely effective."

Southern Manitoba is considered a hotbed for heartworm disease and, typically, he will see a few cases in his clinic each summer.

Pet owners should consult with their vet before spraying a cat or dog with an insect repellent. "The problem is, there are no one or two effective mosquito repellents for dogs and cats," he says. "They have yet to develop a safe, effective repellent for dogs and cats."

He stresses owners should never apply any product containing DEET to dogs or cats because the chemical can be toxic when ingested at high doses, and dogs and cats may lick it off and ingest it. "You shouldn't apply anything with DEET to a pet," he warns. He also noted a repellent that might be deemed safe for dogs could pose a serious threat to a cat living in the same household.

When it comes to mosquitoes, avoiding the bloodsucking pests altogether is the best medicine. "The best advice is to avoid having our pets out for prolonged periods when mosquitoes are at heightened activity, in the early evening hours, overnight and at dusk," Broughton advises.

"Absolutely (mosquitoes can pose a health threat), especially to our dogs. They are a nuisance for us and a nuisance for our pets. They can be a life-threatening risk for our dogs, especially. Owners need to be very aware of mosquitoes."

doug.speirs@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 8, 2014 D5

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