According to the ASPCA, more than 200 animal shelters in 40 states are providing adoptive and foster care services for animal victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. With rescue efforts still in effect, it's impossible to know exactly how many pets have been saved and relocated to new homes across the country. It's estimated that in SLO County alone 30 or more dogs and cats have been brought to area rescue shelters. Existing pet owners and prospective adopters need to be aware that these animals could be carrying a host of diseases, many of which could pose a threat to the area's animal population. Chief among these concerns is heartworm, a disease that is relatively under control in the SLO County area.
"We've seen that the incidence could be as high as 60 percent of dogs that test positive [for heartworm]." said Lila Miller, vice president of Veterinary Outreach for the ASPCA, when asked about the rescued animals. She added that, with the overall compliance to heartworm prevention nationwide relatively low (especially in impoverished areas) there certainly is cause for concern about the parasite spreading to new animal communities.
Heartworm is a parasitic disease spread through mosquito bites that attacks an animal's respiratory system. It eventually blocks the flow of blood to the heart, causing breathlessness, fatigue, and, ultimately, cardiac arrest. Liver and kidney failure are also associated with complications from the illness. Barring prevention, early detection of the presence of heartworms and subsequent treatment is the goal of veterinarians across the country.
The unusually dense mosquito populations that cropped up following the hurricanes means that any heartworm-free animals that weren't undergoing regular prevention could have become infected in the days before they were rescued. Though rescued animals have been regularly tested for the parasite, it can take up to six months to show up in blood tests and this is where the potential threat lies.
What do we do?
SLO area veterinarians stress that this is not a panic situation, though they are concerned about a possible surge in cases throughout the county if heartworm goes undetected and untreated. Pet owners are encouraged to take proper precautionary measures that include continuing preventative medication for pets or immediately starting them on a program to ensure the protection of SLO's existing animal population.
Additionally, adoptive or foster care pet owners are urged to follow through with proper veterinary care for their new friends, with special attention paid to the presence of heartworms. The ASPCA is providing grants to help cover the high cost of heartworm treatment, which increases with the advancement of the illness. Animals undergoing treatment need to be protected from mosquito populations and kept in calm, low-stress environments.
Dog flu, too
Malnourished dogs exposed to the filth of post-hurricane damages may have also been exposed to canine influenza, a disease that first appeared on greyhound racing tracks in Florida but has been found to exist in small numbers in several other states, including Oregon and California. The virus affects dogs in much the same way the flu affects humans; the weaker one's immune system, the more susceptible one is to the ravages of the sickness.
Families adopting pets from kennels or shelters, especially if the animals were rescued from particularly devastating circumstances, are cautioned to watch for signs of canine influenza, which usually include a noticeable cough and fever. Treatment involves multi-step injections of antibiotics and confinement from other dogs, as the illness is considered to be highly communicable.
It's the hope of area veterinarians that by educating the public to the cautions and concerns of pet ownership they can avoid unnecessary panic while continuing to provide compassion and love to animals in need. The transitory nature of our society makes the spread of disease an ongoing possibility, and preparedness and responsibility will go far to ensure that animals receive the love they need and the protection they deserve.
New Times contributor Alice Moss is a slave to her cat. E-mail her at email@example.com