Flea and Heartworm prevention for dogs: it’s a mixed bag

We’re in the process of trying to adopt a dog. A rescue dachshund.  It’s exciting and wonderful and really really cool…

But there is this little clause in the contract we have to sign, requiring us to “administer monthly flea/tick medication” to the dog, and “administer year round monthly heartworm medication.”

Having had two dogs now with chronic medical conditions suspected to be caused by over-vaccination and over-medication, I’m really wary of these things, and I’ve spent a lot of time researching alternatives. 

The heartworm thing–first of all, there are several different levels of medication.  Most of them include extra pesticides to nail other wormy parasitey things, but there’s one which contains only the heartworm stuff.  And here in Illinois, everything freezes so solid all winter that heartworm treatment isn’t something that needs to happen in, say February–most vets up here say you can absolutely get away with just June-November and give an annual test for the larvae, with absolutely no danger (and likely health benefits) to the dog.

Basically, with both the monthly flea “medication” and the monthly heartworm “medication” what you’re doing is administring low level pesticide to your dog’s system.  Flea powders deposit it on the skin, and get inhaled; orals introduce it to the digestive system and bloodstream.  I guess for each pet guardian it comes down to your own philosophy on these things.

One school of thought says that it’s such a low level that it doesn’t hurt the dog and causes no harm, or whatever very slight harm it may cause is far outweighed by the harm that would come by not administering it.   For the heartworm, this may well be true, especially with smaller dogs. If a dog is bitten by a mosquito carrying heartworm parasites, the parasites are injected into the bloodstream of the dog and either are killed off by the dog’s immune system or grow into active live heartworms which, as one might guess, burrow around in the heart doing significant damage.  The smaller the dog, the greater the damage, of course–the heartworms are the same size in all dogs, of course, but the small dog’s heart is a lot smaller and so the worm does much worse damage, and treatment for the worm after it’s there can be pretty harrowing.  So, much as I hate the idea of giving my pet pesticides in pill form, it’s probably safer than the alternative.

The other philosophy, also gaining a foothold in human medicine and health, is the idea of “toxic load.” That is, when creatures are exposed to low levels of toxic substances over extended periods of time, problems develop that may or may not be tracable in a linear way back to the original toxin–it’s the interaction of the different toxicities over time that weaken the immune system and allow different problems to break through.  For me, living in a northern climate where all the bugs die off over the winter every year, the risk to my dogs ongoing immune health is not worth giving flea prevention “meds” every month year round. I prefer to use natural bug repellents and treat the flea infestation if it happens. (Another post, still to come.)  The same school also says that fleas generaly won’t come near a healthy dog with a good immune system, so if you keep your dog healthy it’s much less likely to get infested with fleas.

The wider veterinary community is beginning to realize what cost the current regimen of over-vaccination and over-medication exacts from our pets over time–cost in the health of the pet as well as money, as the afflictions that come in later years show up and themselves need treatment. 

So, after speaking with the rescue organization head, we came to a compromise: since we’ll be adopting this Southern little dog who has not spent the past winter completely isolated from any kind of mosquito life, we will give her heartworm prevention through her first year with us; after that, she will go on the same regimen as our other dog, receiving the treatment just from June-November, which is when the skeeters are out for us.  And they are comfortable letting me deal with fleas as I choose to, since they are more an irritation than an actual danger to the dog.

Anti-flea treatment post to come!


Posted on May 27, 2009, in health, is it safe?, pets, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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