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April is National Heartworm Awareness Month and because heartworm is transmitted by mosquitos, areas with warm climates typically have a higher number of heartworm cases. That’s why in places like the Hawaiian Islands, awareness is particularly important. The American Heartworm Society estimates that 26 to 50 cases were reported per clinic in Hawaii in 2016.

When Roxy (my niece) and Kalani, a young couple residing in Oahu, wished to bring a dog into their lives they began their search at the Hawaiian Humane Society. It was there that they met and fell in love with a slate grey and white pit bull they named Tutu.

Tutu had found himself at the shelter as a stray and had only been there for four days before being rehomed. According to Roxy, he’s the Cuddle Master. “He really is the sweetest little soulful guy. He loves people and attention and is a good source of entertainment and joy.”

Those who adopt pit bulls or any “bully type” dog face specific challenges. As Roxy explains, “Luckily out here pit-bull type dogs are very popular, so we don’t get too much negativity, just sometimes  people with small dogs crossing the street when they see him coming.” But Roxy and Kalani practice responsible dog ownership and understand and respect those who may harbor a fear of these dogs noting that Tutu does catch some people off guard just by his size. “He’s a big pup,” Roxy says.

But not long after the adoption took place Roxy and Kalani faced another challenge when during a routine vet check it was suspected that Tutu might have heartworm; thin, long white parasitic worms that despite their name do not live in the heart, but reside in the lungs of dogs (and cats). These worms can grow to be over a foot long beginning the first stage of their development in the gut of mosquitos before being transmitted to their unwitting furry host. After being injected into the mammal, heartworms enter the larval stage in the capillaries and skin of the dog followed by the adult stage where they reside in the dog’s pulmonary veins.   

Heartworm infestation can be difficult to detect. Symptoms include a progressively worsening cough, anemia, difficulty breathing and a reluctance to exercise. Tutu’s treatment had to be delayed due to stomach issues from being on antibiotics for too long for a previous condition. “Our vet actually wouldn’t give him any new medication, including heartworm prevention, for months until his stomach healed,” Roxy explains. When he was cleared to get his medicines up-to-date, he was prescribed the Heartworm test which is always done before treatment starts. When his first result came back positive and a second test came back borderline Heartworm treatment began.

Roxy, Kalani and of course Tutu were fortunate. As Roxy recalls, “Tutu didn’t actually display any symptoms at all and we were lucky to have caught it very early and were able to get rid of the worms using only preventative treatments, patience, and rest.” Because his heartworm condition was not severe and he’s so young, and otherwise healthy, he didn’t have to undergo more extreme treatments.

After he was diagnosed heartworm positive Tutu was house-bound, and his movement restricted to keep his heart rate as low as possible. While the preventative medicine kills the heartworms, little bits of them can break off and travel to a dog’s heart causing great harm or worse. “We had to wait four months after his first dose of medicine to re-check for the heart worms. When he came back all clear we eased him back into physical activity, since we’d kept his movement to a minimum for so long,” Roxy recalls.

As is true for humans, so is for dogs and “an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure” and less expensive, too. With regular visits with a veterinarian, blood tests and providing once-a-month heartworm prevention meds, dog owners can effectively minimize, if not eliminate, the impact of this deadly disease. Other preventative measures include avoiding the times of dawn and dusk for walks and eliminating standing water where mosquitos lay their eggs.

In early January, on the occasion of Roxy’s birthday, she and Kalani received notice that Tutu was healthy!  “We were able to take him down to the beach to watch the sunset with me to celebrate,” Roxy happily relays.

These days Tutu continues to enjoy the good life in his tropical paradise. According to Roxy, he’s a “resilient little guy,” and they’re working on his off-leash training at the beach to focus while being around other dogs. Although Tutu can be quite stubborn, he has no other behavioral or health issues. His only “flaws” seem to be that he’s a little bit of a bed hog and heavy sleeper at times.

It’s successful adoption stories like this that can have a positive impact on the dog-human bond and young adopters like Roxy and Kalani are excellent role models for intelligent and informed dog adoption. Their commitment to making Tutu physically and emotionally healthy sets a good example for everyone. I thank them for sharing their story and for bringing awareness to the serious issue of heartworm.

Mahalo, thank you, and much love to everyone in their endeavors to keep their pets happy and healthy.

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