This is another in our “Reader’s Heartworm Stories” series and I am very grateful to Doug for sending us this story about his dog Ginger and for the wonderful pictures – thank you Doug!
Ginger was about 9 months old in March 2009 when I adopted her from a rescue shelter in New Orleans (where I was living at the time). The shelter staff told me that she had tested negative for heartworms and had been placed on monthly preventatives starting after she was tested, and they provided me paperwork that testified to this. After adopting Ginger, I kept her on monthly heartworm preventative tablets starting right away. I chose to use Iverhart Plus brand at first, because they were the cheapest option that my vet sold.
In November 2009, I took Ginger to the vet to get the recommended follow-up heartworm test and restock my supply of her preventative medication. The results of this test showed that she was heartworm positive. The vet told me that the treatment would cost over $900, which I could not afford at the time. The vet then told me that since Ginger was young and healthy, and showed no symptoms of illness, I could just keep her on the monthly preventatives and keep an eye out for changes in her health, and that the worms would slowly die over time. I continued to use Iverhart for the next six months.
In April 2010, I took Ginger to a low-cost vet at Petco for her vaccinations and another heartworm test. To my great pleasure, the results of this test turned out negative. At this time, I switched to Heartgard Plus brand of preventatives. I think the reason I switched was because that was the only brand this vet sold, and the price was also the same as I was previously paying for the other brand. I stayed with this brand from that point on. Although I later moved to Atlanta for a year, the vets there allowed me to purchase more Heartgard without re-testing for heartworms.
Ginger Tests Positive for Heartworms
In October 2011, Ginger moved with me to New York state. Her preventative tablets were almost out, and I found a discount veterinary pharmacy online that had a good deal on Heartgard, but required proof of a recent negative heartworm test. So, I went to the local Petco the next time that their vet was in. This time, Ginger’s test results were positive. I then took her to a regular veterinary clinic near my home for a second test. I was told that the type of test they did there was more complex and reliable than the other. But the results of this test turned out the same—positive.
I contacted Merial, the manufacturer of Heartgard, and told them that my dog contracted heartworms even though she had been using their preventative medication and had never missed a dose. They told me to send them proof. So, after much effort to recall all the random places that I had bought the medicine over the years, and placing many phone calls to get those places to FAX or email me a copy of the records of sale, I was able to send everything to Merial. The case worker at Merial told me that I qualified for partial coverage of the treatment costs, but not full. She said this was because after I had switched brands from Iverhart to Heartgard, I should have re-tested Ginger after six months. The reason for that was that Ginger could have contracted the heartworms while she was on the Iverhart and not the Heartgard. Since the germination period for heartworms is six months, a re-test six months after switching brands would have demonstrated that she was indeed heartworm-free when she started taking Heartgard (assuming that test showed negative results). But nobody ever informed me of that fact before, so I had no idea that there was any reason why I should have re-tested her a mere six months after her prior test… and so, of course, I didn’t do it.
After several weeks waiting for Merial’s case worker to consult with their vet, waiting for their vet to consult with my vet, and waiting for their case worker to get back in touch with me, I was finally informed that Ginger could go ahead and get her treatment. I would have to pay all of the veterinary charges out of my own pocket, but Merial would provide the medication itself free of charge. They also gave me a free year supply of Heartgard Plus. I thought this was ironic, since I had already decided to move to a different brand (Interceptor, which is highly recommended by all the vets in my area) due to Heartgard’s failure to protect Ginger in the past.
When I asked my vet how much the treatment would cost me, they didn’t really know. They said “it depends” on things such as how well the dog behaves, etc. I found this a bit suspicious, but I was able to get them to give me a rough estimate of around $300-400 for the total cost. I called another local vet clinic to compare costs, but the assistant at the other vet clinic told me she had no idea how much it would cost because they had never done it before. So, I figured it would be a good idea to stick with the original vet.
Ginger Starts Her Treatment
After a few more weeks of waiting for Merial to deliver the medicine, I set up Ginger’s first appointment. The treatment consisted of a series of three injections into her lower back. For the first injection, the vet had to shave the fur off of a large square patch of her back and clean it thoroughly before injecting the medicine. Because the needle was going to be inserted close to her spine, it was extremely important that she stayed perfectly still and straight when they injected her. Ginger has a lot of energy and strength, and didn’t seem to agree with this plan, so we had to give her a shot of sedatives. They worked nicely, and she soon became calm and relaxed. The vet tech held the front half of her body straight and still, and also served to distract her at the time of injection. I held down her back half. Then the doctor prepared the needle. It really shocked me to see how huge it was! And the way he injected it also shocked me. Rather than the slow and gentle injection that I am used to seeing, he counted to three and then slammed the needle into her and pulled it out very quickly. He explained why he used that technique, but it still was a little disturbing to watch. What was also disturbing was the bill—it was almost $400 just for that first visit, and I had two more visits to go! They explained that the costs were higher for the first visit because they did some blood tests for precautionary purposes. I still didn’t feel good that they had grossly underestimated the costs to me before, but at this point I didn’t really have much choice other than to pay them whatever they charged me. Plus, I had no idea of knowing what lab work was actually necessary, so I let them do whatever they said was appropriate.
Ginger was able to walk back to the car on her own, but I had to pick her up and put her inside. On the way home, the sedatives seemed to be wearing off, because she started crying and whining very loudly. This continued for approximately three full hours after we got home! She was totally out of her mind, pacing back and forth throughout the house, eyes glazed and drooling all over the place. This was for sure the most traumatic part of the whole experience for me. Her incessant whining and shortness of breath really scared me, and I almost called the vet on his cell phone so I could bring her back to the clinic (it was now after hours). But I just assumed everything was fine and normal, and sure enough, a few hours later, Ginger was back to normal (though a bit tired).
The rest of the treatment consisted of another injection 30 days later, and a third injection the day after that. Those appointments were very similar to the first one. The total amount that I paid was over $1,000 even with the supposedly-free medicine (which I was told was supposed to be the most expensive part of the treatment).
In between the first and second visits, as well as for a month after the third visit, I was required to keep Ginger totally inactive. This meant that I had to watch her constantly and prevent her from playing with her pal Taffee, prevent her from running in the back yard, deny her of going for walks, etc. for two full months. This was extremely difficult, since Ginger is a very high energy dog who loves to do active things. And since she had absolutely no symptoms of heartworms, she felt perfectly fine and didn’t have any reason to take life slow in her opinion. Another very difficult thing for me to do was to keep her locked in her cage (a large travel carrier) every single day while I was at work. This meant that she had to be locked up for at least nine hours every day for at least two months! And she had no idea why. I felt so bad! First I take her to some strange place where they give her shots that turn her into a zombie for hours and make her back hurt for days, then I forbid her from playing, then I lock her up… like I said, I felt bad for her, but she didn’t seem to hold it against me. She is a happy dog, and she loves to do whatever I tell her to, so that really helped. Also, I came home from work during lunchtime every day so that I could let her out of her cage for a few minutes. (I also locked up Taffee for the two months, because I thought it would be cruel to lock Ginger up and let Taffee roam free. Thankfully, Taffee enjoys being in her cage, although not with the door closed.)
A Positive Outcome
It was a very long and slow two months, but the day finally came when I could let my dogs get back to their normal lives. I still had to make sure they took it slow with the exercise, since they had been inactive for so long. At first, I did notice that their stamina was low and they got tired and winded after just a little bit of running or playing. But, they soon got back in shape and everything was back to normal. Everything, that is, except for the bald spot on Ginger’s back. It has now been about five months since they shaved it, and it is less than halfway re-grown. At first I was concerned, but I guess that her hair just naturally grows slowly.
I really hated putting Ginger, Taffee, and myself through all that (and spending so much money) when she never even showed any signs of health problems… and even more so since I had been responsible and gave her the preventative medication every single month… but now I am just happy that her body is cleansed, and hopeful that nothing like that ever happens again.
Editor’s Note: Thank you Doug for sending us Ginger’s story. I think you make two important points that would be helpful for other readers to take note of. Firstly that you were not advised to have another heartworm test when you switched brands at a time other than the annual heartworm test. Also that because of this fact, although Merial helped with the cost of the treatment, they could not assume all costs due to the fact that it was possible that Ginger had contracted heartworm on the earlier medication. I am just so glad to hear that the treatment is over and done with and you have two beautiful, healthy dogs.