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Help for the Heartworm Positive

Lulu was in a bad way.

Her pictures alone are enough to break your heart. Her story, maybe even more so. As Karen Bartolomei, director at Pawsitive Impact Animal Shelter, says, Lulu was scared to death but alive. She was also on borrowed time.

“Lulu came to us in poor shape with a litter of three-week-old pups in tow,” she says. “After being exposed to the winter months with only a bale of hay and a tattered tarp to block the elements and keep them from freezing to death, Lulu was very skinny and malnourished and looked like a skeleton. But she gave her all to keep her babies safe.”

While fighting to regain her strength, tests confirmed the worst: Lulu was heartworm positive.

Heartworm is one of those diseases. Mention it around clinics like ours or within earshot of someone from a rescue or shelter, and you’ll see the concern grow in their eyes. Although it seems like a fairly common disease, it just doesn’t seem to get much attention. But it should. That’s because heartworm - left untreated - is always fatal for dogs.


Cats, it should be noted, can also contract heartworm; however, they aren’t natural hosts for the disease, so it manifests differently. It can still be serious but, at times, less so. Sadly, for cats, there is no treatment like there is for dogs.

What is heartworm, and where does it come from?

Heartworm is exactly what it sounds like: worms in the heart, which, as you can imagine, are not good. But they start with the simple - and horrible - mosquito. After a bite from an infected mosquito, tiny heartworm larvae begin to grow and reproduce in the bloodstream.

Adult worms, which look like angel hair pasta, settle in the heart and lungs, eventually causing coughing, fatigue, decreased appetite, and weight loss. As the disease progresses, heart failure is a possibility, and their bellies can start to fill with fluid.

If a dog tests positive for heartworm, there is a treatment for it. However, it is costly, takes time, and can be hard on the dog. The severity of the disease (how far along the worms have progressed in their growth cycle) will determine the severity of the symptoms and the potential for complications. Treatment, it turns out, can take months.

This is why prevention is the best course against heartworm for dogs as well as cats. And that goes for winter, too, even though you might not see many if any, mosquitoes. But in just a couple of days, with the weather getting above freezing and mosquitoes will stir and be actively in search of someone to bite.

A better life for Lulu

With time and treatment, Lulu’s life and prospects turned around. As Karen said, “She’s heartworm negative and living her best life.”

But, again, treatment is costly and complicated. For already overwhelmed shelters like Pawsitive Impact that are stretched thin, it’s not typically possible. “Without the help of the grant that is provided to pets like Lulu, we simply couldn’t save as many pets as we do,” says Karen. “We take on a lot of heartworm positive pets [due] to the assistance…these pets may not get the help they need without programs such as this.”

Spay Illinois has treated a number of animals like Lulu, including Bailey, seen in the picture below with her.

Protecting your pet

For both dogs and cats, the best course of action, even in and around a colder climate like that of Chicago’s, is prevention. “We advocate to communities the importance of heartworm preventatives and the need to supply a monthly dose year-round,” Karen added.

As for the work we're doing with Pawsitive Impact, Karen says, “Without Spay Illinois, none of this would be possible as we are already over budget and struggling to pay the normal medical expenses.”

We are truly glad we can help. And we're here for you, too. If you have a pet, please keep them on a heartworm preventative. We can help with preventatives at our Wellness Clinic, even if you just want to talk with our vets about a recommendation. After all, animals have wonderful hearts that give lots of love and deserve to be protected.



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