Monday, April 19, 2010

Heartworms Continue to Plague Pets!

Each year, veterinarians do battle with an ancient enemy of our dogs and cats. Heartworms are easily preventable with affordable and safe medications, but positive cases continue to rise. Is there any hope that we could see an end to this parasite?

By: Krista Gibson, DVM

It’s been more than 150 years since a scientist discovered the heartworm parasite of dogs and more than 80 years since the parasite was found in cats. Still, each year hundreds of thousands of dogs and cats are diagnosed with this dreaded worm and it is estimated that North American cases are actually in the millions. In all this time, why have we not found a way to combat and stop this plague?

Heartworm disease is devastating to the pet’s health. Spread by mosquitoes, this parasite can grow close to two feet long and takes up physical space in the heart’s chambers and pulmonary artery. This means that the dog’s heart must work harder to push the same amount of blood out to the body. Early signs of this disease included fatigue and exercise intolerance, but later signs can include coughing, fluid accumulation in the lungs or abdomen and death.

For cats, the heartworm larvae prefer the lungs and can cause vomiting, asthma like symptoms and even sudden death in some cases.

Not only is the pet harmed, but the owner is affected as well. Heartworm treatments for small dogs can run in excess of $500 and costs for larger breeds might surpass $1200 or even $1500. Sadly, the case might be worse for cats as there is no approved treatment for heartworms in our feline friends.

Amazingly, veterinarians do have an answer to this problem. Safe, effective heartworm medications exist in a variety of easy to use applications. What’s even more incredible is that the cost of a lifetime of preventive for most pets is significantly less than a single treatment for the disease. So, why do pets continue to suffer and die from a preventable problem?

Two radical theories seen on the Internet state that either the heartworm medications are failing or that the parasites are developing a resistance to the drugs. While conspiracy theorists may love these ideas, scientific evidence for both is lacking. Heartworm preventives have a failure rate of less than 1 in 1 million doses. Likewise, the complex life cycle of the heartworm does not lend itself to developing a natural resistance to medications.

Some people look to climate change for answers. Increasing temperatures mean a longer mosquito season and larger potential for transmission to pets. While we are seeing more mosquitoes in previously mosquito-free areas, the likely reasons are changes made by humans. Irrigation of dry areas and increased plantings of trees in certain locales can actually help a mosquito population. More mosquitoes mean more opportunities for transmission of heartworms.

When all the facts are reviewed, the simplest reason for our failure to control this deadly parasite is simply that we don’t give the preventive as we should. Whether it’s forgetfulness or financial concerns, pet owners must realize that they are on the front lines in this battle and their actions could have dire consequences for the pet.

Thankfully, as pet owners, you do have powerful allies in this war. Your veterinarian can help you pick the best heartworm medication for your pet and your lifestyle. Oral formulations, like Heartgard and Sentinel, topical products, like Advantage Multi and even a long lasting injection, ProHeart 6, can help keep you on the winning side.

Beyond your veterinarian, veterinary pharmaceutical companies are also helping. Websites, such as and email alerts are available to help you remember to give the preventive on time.

Don’t waste time looking for “natural” or organic ways to prevent heartworms; they simply don’t exist. Follow recommendations given by your veterinarian and the American Heartworm Society ( It’s the best way to keep your pet and your wallet safe! For more information on heartworms, visit If you have questions about heartworm disease, products or treatment, visit the veterinarians at

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Dr. Krista Gibson is a veterinarian at Animal Medical Services and can be reached at

Friday, February 26, 2010

Pet Dentistry without Sedation - Worthwhile or Is it Just Surface Changes?

In veterinary medicine, dental disease is seen in almost every animal. But, in our busy lives it’s hard to find the time to do regular preventive care. Adding to the problem, dental cleanings under general anesthesia seems risky to many. Recently, anesthesia-free pet dentistry has become a fad. However, is this option good care and safe long term?

By: Krista Gibson, DVM

With more than 85% of pets over age three suffering from some sort of dental disease, veterinarians are constantly reminding clients to provide at home dental care for their pets. In addition, most veterinarians encourage annual dental exams and cleanings for their patients followed by care at home. Still, pet owners are reluctant to follow these recommendations.

Some people are actually leery of anesthetics used for dental procedures. In response to client concerns, some people have developed Anesthesia-Free Pet Dentistry (AFPD) protocols. Marketing brochures show calm dogs sitting on the laps of “pet dental hygienists” who gently scrape tartar off the pet’s teeth. For anyone who has a senior pet or anyone who has lost a pet under anesthetic, this idea might seem to be right on target.

In practice, however, there are several negative unintended consequences. While some dogs can be tolerant and will sit patiently, many have to be physically restrained, leading to stress and deep-seated fears.

Veterinarians use ultrasonic scalers and sharp dental instruments. This is one reason a general anesthetic is needed. Beyond keeping the patient from moving, heavy sedation or general anesthetic allows a more thorough procedure and proper visualization of the entire mouth and hard to see gingival areas.

Dr. Brett Beckman, a fellow in the American Veterinary Dental Society says “most non-professional dental cleanings are done using some sort of hand curette. These tools cause scarring and micro-pitting of the enamel surface and this can actually accelerate plaque retention and tartar build-up!” In other words, this incomplete “cleaning” actually damages the tooth causing plaque and tartar development to occur more rapidly in the future.

Dr. Beckman goes on to say that “these procedures do much more harm than good. Pets that have had this done actually need to return for more frequent cleanings as a result of this enamel damage. This might be good for the business, but it is certainly not good for the pet.”

In a proper veterinary medical setting, dental cleanings are followed by a polishing step that helps remove the microscopic divots from the tooth enamel and creates a smooth healthy surface. Many veterinarians also apply a barrier sealant that helps repel plaque-causing bacteria and has been shown to reduce plaque and tartar accumulation. Once professionally applied, this sealant can be maintained at home for better prevention.

Another serious issue with AFPD cleanings is that only visible portions of the teeth can be cleaned – usually only the outside surfaces. Areas under the gumline and on the insides of teeth will still have significant tartar and harbor the harmful bacteria. In time, the underlying bony structure of the jaw can deteriorate and the pet may lose teeth.

Under safe anesthetic, veterinarians are able to probe all areas of the mouth and use tools to remove plaque and bacteria from under the gum line. This actually stops the disease process. At the same time, dental x-rays can be done to help find potential problem areas. Even though more than 28% of dogs and 42% of cats have hidden dental disease, you won’t find x-ray equipment at the anesthesia free dental facility!

Finally, safety is also an issue with these non-professional cleanings. Even though many pets are patient and tolerant, there is the very real danger that the dog or cat will lash out in frustration or pain and bite someone. Lacerations of the pets gums, hard pallet and even the lips are also possible

If you know your pet needs a proper dental cleaning, but the thought of general anesthesia frightens you, talk with your veterinarian. While no anesthetic protocol is 100% safe, anesthetic complications are extremely rare. Allow your veterinarian to show you the monitoring equipment and explain how a well trained staff makes anesthesia as safe as possible.

You can also reduce the need for dental cleanings by using dental home care products designed to remove plaque buildup in between the veterinary visits. The gold standard is to brush your pet’s teeth daily. Use a soft-bristled toothbrush and a special dentifrice product designed for pets. You should never use human toothpaste!

Certain diets, like Hill’s® t/d food or Eukanuba® Dental Defense, or dental chew products, like Greenies® can also reduce the amount of plaque for problem cases. Look for the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) Seal when choosing chew products for your pet.

Even the barrier sealant used at your veterinarian’s office is available in a home version. Oravet® by Merial can be applied on a weekly basis to help reinforce the product used at the time of your pet’s dental cleaning.

Anesthesia free dentistry for pets might sound like a good idea, but the truth is the benefits are strictly cosmetic and there are serious medical and behavioral risks. To learn more about steps you can take to keep your pet’s smile bright, visit the Pet Library at

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Dr. Krista Gibson is a veterinarian at Animal Medical Services and can be reached at