It’s scary to find out your dog has heartworm. And your vet may frighten you even more, because the treatment itself is dangerous … if you use conventional drugs. But there are natural remedies that can get rid of heartworms. They take longer than the conventional treatment … but they’re much safer for your dog.
In this post you’ll find information about heartworm disease symptoms, as well as conventional treatments and natural heartworm remedies.
If you want to know how to protect your dog from heartworm without toxic drugs … click on the link below for information about prevention.
RELATED: How to prevent heartworm naturally …
How Dogs Get Heartworm
Let’s recap this, because not everybody knows how heartworm is transmitted. Your dog can’t catch heartworm from another dog … or any other animal. Except a mosquito.
The only way your dog can get heartworm is a bite from a mosquito that’s already infected with heartworm.
Here’s how it works …
- First the mosquito has to bite another animal with heartworm.
- The mosquito picks up microfilariae (heartworm babies) from that animal.
- The microfilariae grow up and become larvae … inside the mosquito.
- If the mosquito bites your dog, it transmits larvae to your dog.
- Larvae grow up into adult heartworms in your dog.
- The adult heartworms breed inside your dog and create microfilariae.
You’ve doubtless seen the scary photos or 3-D models in the vet’s office … showing a dog’s heart full of spaghetti-like heartworms. But that kind of terrifying infestation takes a long time to happen.
In fact, it takes 6-7 months after the mosquito bites your dog for adult heartworms to develop in his body. So heartworm is quite a slow-growing disease … which means you have time to treat it naturally.
This also means your dog can have heartworms without showing any symptoms. So it’s a good idea to do regular heartworm tests.
RELATED: Find out about different types of heartworm tests and how often to do them …
Symptoms Of Heartworm Disease
Dogs who don’t have clinical signs have heartworm infection … but not heartworm disease. That means your dog can be infected with heartworms … but they’re not making him sick.
Here are the 4 stages of heartworm disease and symptoms.
Class 1: No symptoms, or mild symptoms like an occasional cough.
Class 2: Mild to moderate symptoms. Occasional cough or tiredness after moderate activity.
Class 3: More severe symptoms. Your dog may look unwell, cough persistently, and get tired easily. He could have trouble breathing or even show signs of heart failure.
Class 4: This is called caval syndrome. It means blood flowing back to the heart gets physically blocked by a large mass of worms. Many dogs with caval syndrome don’t survive, even with surgery. Not all dogs with heartworm disease develop caval syndrome.
But even so, heartworm disease can progress and damage your dog’s heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys. This organ damage will eventually cause death. So if your dog gets heartworms, you definitely need to treat them. But there are some good DIY heartworm treatments available.
How Vets Diagnose Heartworm
The regular test your vet does annually is an antigen test. It identifies adult, female heartworms … but not male heartworms. Most vets can do this test in-house.
If your dog’s heartworm antigen test is positive, your vet will likely order a microfilariae test. The presence of microfilariae tells them if the adult heartworms are breeding in your dog.
If there are no microfilariae, it usually means the heartworms are still at an immature stage. Or it might also mean your dog only has female heartworms … so they’re not making babies.
If your vet thinks the heartworm has advanced to class 2 or 3, she may do chest x-rays, ultrasound or an echocardiogram to assess heart or lung damage.
If your dog’s heartworm has reached class 4, with caval syndrome, your vet will recommend immediate surgery to remove the heartworms. Survival rates for dogs with caval syndrome are poor, even with surgery.
For class 1, 2 or 3 heartworm disease, you can expect your vet to urge you to start the conventional heartworm treatment right away. So here’s what that involves.
Conventional Heartworm Treatment
This is a long, difficult, risky and expensive process that requires your dog to be on restricted activity for a few months (there’s more detail about this below). This is what happens if you choose conventional heartworm treatment. As you read this … remember you have other options that we’ll explain later.
- Step 1: First they’ll start your dog on regular monthly “preventive” meds to kill immature heartworms and prevent new infections. This drug will continue throughout treatment.
- Step 2: At the same time, they’ll give 30 days of the antibiotic doxycycline. This is an extra precaution in case there’s any Wolbachia bacteria. Wolbachia live in the heartworms and can affect the success of treatment … so they give the antibiotic first to avoid complications.
- Step 3: At 60 days, 90 days and 91 days, your dog will get a series of intramuscular injections of the “adulticide” drug called Immiticide (melarsomine). This is the dangerous drug that kills adult heartworms. Your vet may want your dog to stay at the clinic for these injections in case of complications. See below to learn about Immiticide risks.
- Step 4: Your vet may also prescribe the steroid drug prednisone for your dog to reduce side effects.
- Step 5: At 120 days, the vet will examine your dog and test for microfilariae. This tells her if your dog’s ready to gradually start exercising again. If your dog still has microfilariae, they may give another drug and retest at day 150.
- Step 6: One year after beginning treatment … your vet will re-test to make sure all stages of the heartworms have been eliminated.
The Risks Of Immiticide
This adulticide drug is the dangerous part. Immiticide (melarsomine) contains arsenic. Arsenic is, of course, a poisonous mineral. This makes it very risky for your dog. It comes with a litany of warnings … and the manufacturer’s own literature says it has “a low margin of safety.”
Here are some of the adverse reactions from melarsomine treatment. These are from clinical field trials as well as adverse event reports to the FDA …
- Injection site swelling or pain
- Anorexia/lack of appetite
- Lung congestion
- Polypnea (panting)
There’s a long list of more severe reactions that happened in less than 1.5% of dogs in Immiticide field trials. Here are just a few from that list.
- Abdominal bleeding and pain
- DIC (abnormal blood clotting)
Sometimes dogs die with melarsomine treatment. In Immiticide field trials, 5.2% of dogs with class 1 and 2 heartworm disease died. 18.2% of dogs with class 3 disease died. In another study of 15 dogs with class 3 disease, 5 dogs died following treatment.
So this is a very scary drug that you should avoid if you can.
Note: The slow-kill treatment method described below does not include Immiticide injections. So it’s worth exploring if you’d prefer a pharmaceutical option.
Side Effects To Watch For
During treatment, you’ll need to monitor your dog for any of the following symptoms:
- Loss of appetite
- Excessive sluggishness
- Respiratory distress
- Coughing up blood
These last 3 are serious and you must tell the vet immediately.
Restricted Activity During Treatment
Your dog must be on strict crate rest for the entire treatment period, until 6-8 weeks after the last Immiticide injection at 90 days. So that means your dog is confined for up to 5 months. During that time your dog can only go out on leash, to restrict his activity level.
Here’s the dire warning the American Heartworm Society (AHS) gives about that …
“Because exercise increases blood flow to the lungs, it increases the likelihood that dead worms will block blood flow. This can result in severe complications and possibly death. The importance of restricting your dog’s activity cannot be overemphasized.”
And they’re not exaggerating. This is a real risk with conventional heartworm treatment.
Price Of Heartworm Treatment
The cost estimates for this treatment vary widely. They’ll depend on any complications and whether your dog needs to be hospitalized during the process. But you can plan on spending at least $1,000, probably more in some cities. Some dog owners report spending as much as $2,000.
What About Slow-Kill Heartworm Treatment?
There’s another type of conventional heartworm treatment. It’s known as the “slow-kill” method. Some dog owners choose this treatment. It involves giving heartworm preventive drugs for a year or longer, usually alongside doxycycline. The slow-kill method doesn’t use Immiticide injections.
The AHS strongly discourages the slow-kill method. That means most vets probably will be reluctant too. They say slow-kill is less effective … and that damage to your dog’s organs will continue during treatment. It could also mean a much longer period of confinement for your dog.
But in fact, there’s research showing that giving preventive drugs in conjunction with doxycycline can be effective. And the studies show it doesn’t take nearly as long as the AHS says. So if your dog has heartworms and you prefer a more conventional treatment … the slow-kill method can be a good alternative.
But no matter which method you choose … conventional heartworm treatment is a difficult undertaking because of …
- High risk of complications and side effects (including death)
- High cost
- Poor quality of life for your dog, with 5 months or more confinement
Fortunately, there are some natural alternatives to the conventional treatment.
How To Treat Heartworms In Dogs At Home
Caution: Get professional help for this treatment. Heartworm disease is dangerous and isn’t something to treat by yourself. You can treat your dog at home, but make sure you get help from a holistic vet or herbalist. You can find a holistic vet at ahvma.org or a homeopathic vet at theavh.org. Many will do phone consults, so they don’t have to be local.
Here are some of the options for your heartworm-positive dog.
Herbal Heartworm Formula
This formula is from Steve Marsden DVM, in the Manual of Natural Veterinary Medicine. Again, don’t use it on your own because you’ll need a holistic vet’s advice on dosing.
The tincture blend contains:
- 14 ml ginger
- 9 ml wormwood*
- 4 ml garlic
- 14 ml thyme
- 9 ml cinnamon
Dosage: Ask your holistic vet or herbalist about the right dosage for your dog. Dr Marsden suggests a starting dose of 0.1 ml per 5 lbs of body weight, divided into 2 or 3 doses per day.
*Wormwood can cause gastrointestinal irritation. Giving the tincture separately in a gelatin capsule with meals can reduce the effect. Before using wormwood, read the additional comments under Black Walnut And Wormwood.
Dr Marsden has used the above herbal blend successfully in his practice. He gives it along with Bromelain. Bromelain is an enzyme extracted from pineapples. It helps break down the dead worms. This can lower the chances of your dog getting a pulmonary embolism from worm die-off.
Bromelain is available at many health stores. You can also buy digestive enzymes for dogs that include bromelain. Dr Marsden recommends a starting dose of 30 mg per lb of body weight. Divide this into two or three daily doses and give it two hours away from meals.
Ready-Made Herbal Blends
There are some ready-made herbal remedies available to help your dog eliminate heartworms.
When you look for a remedy, you’ll find the company website usually won’t directly say their products kill heartworms. That’s because the FDA won’t let them make that claim for natural products.
So they have to be subtle in the language they use to describe their product. They’ll say things like …
- Supports normal heart function
- Promotes healthy blood circulation
- Helps detox foreign contaminates
This means you might have to call the company to find out if it really can get rid of heartworms. They’ll be more open on the phone.
These remedies may include ingredients like …
- Hawthorn (a heart-strengthening herb that helps circulation)
- Dandelion leaves (help with detox)
- Garlic (anti-parasitic, immune support and insect repellent)
- Neem (immune support, insect repellent)
- Wormwood (antiparasitic)
- Black Walnut (antiparasitic)
- Black seed (antiparasitic)
Don’t hesitate to call the manufacturer to find out more. They should tell you by phone if their herbal blend can help your dog with heartworm disease.
If you use these products, follow the manufacturer’s dosing directions.
Black Walnut And Wormwood
There are several products and protocols using these two powerful herbs. Some have found them effective. But there are risks of side effects.
Black Walnut (Juglans nigra): Strong tannins, volatile oils and alkaloid ingredients can cause vomiting and diarrhea.
Wormwood (Artemisa absinthum): The volatile oil thujone can harm the liver, kidneys and nervous system. Never use wormwood in dogs with liver or kidney problems or seizures.
Avoid both herbs with pregnant or lactating animals.
Again … it’s a good idea to get guidance about these herbs from your holistic vet or herbalist. They can be toxic if used incorrectly. Some heartworm treatment products and protocols that include black walnut and wormwood are:
- Dr Hulda Clark’s Pet Parasite Program
- Systemic Formulas VRM2
- Black Walnut and Wormwood Tincture (various brands)
The Importance Of Diet And Environment
A great diet and minimal toxins are always the key to good health for your dog. And they’re even more vital if your dog has heartworm disease. A strong immune system will support your dog’s body as it works to expel the parasites. Help him by following these guidelines …
- Feed the best food you can (ideally a raw meat and fresh whole food diet)
- Don’t use pharmaceuticals
- Avoid chemical cleaners and fragrances in your home
- Don’t use chemical herbicides in your yard
- Don’t use any chemical pesticides in your home, yard or on your dog
- Make sure your dog gets fresh spring or filtered water
- Give immune-supporting supplements like medicinal mushrooms
Manage Your Dog’s Activity
Even using natural remedies, your dog should only do light activities. Depending on his energy level, he may not need to be on full crate rest (as he would with conventional treatment). But he shouldn’t be too energetic.
Let him roam freely around the house or take him on short leash walks. But don’t let your dog play vigorously or get the zoomies around your house or yard. When your dog runs or races around, his heartbeat goes up. This makes his blood flow faster. That can cause worms to detach and get into his bloodstream.
Hopefully your dog will never get heartworms. But if he does, you have some options to avoid the very dangerous and expensive conventional treatment.
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