Rescued Katrina Dogs Trigger Heartworm Epidemic

Written by Peter Worthington on Saturday October 10, 2009

Veterinarians are seeing a “huge increase” in heartworm disease in dogs - 10 times normal in 2008 – which threatens to reach epidemic proportions and may take years to curtail. The cause: Dogs abandoned after Hurricane Katrina which have been adopted across North America, before being adequately tested.

According to the Hamilton Academy of Veterinarian Medicine (HAVM) in Canada, a “huge increase” in heartworm disease in dogs - 10 times the normal in 2008 – threatens to reach epidemic proportions and will take years to curtail.

The prime reason: Abandoned dogs imported from Louisiana into Canada by the Hamilton SPCA after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 which hadn’t been adequately tested, and carried the disease that is spread by mosquitoes.

What started as a humanitarian gesture, importing Louisiana dogs has become a fixture with humane societies in Southern Ontario – St. Catharines, Niagara Falls, Welland, Fort Erie and even Cambridge and Guelph.

These dogs were sent to adoptive homes across America and parts of Canada, and if the Hamilton experience is reflected in the U.S., a massive increase in heartworm seems inevitable – a terrible, costly, fatal disease if untreated.

Last year some 600 dogs from Louisiana reached the Hamilton SPCA, most under eight months old that have nothing to do with hurricane season. The puppies, billed as being “rescued,” were sold for adoption by the Hamilton SPCA for $470 each.

Most of the imported dogs are supplied by the Louisiana dog rescue firm of B.A.R.K (Bordeaux Animal Rescue Krewe) which now gets dogs from across the Southern states, which is prime heartworm country.

Heartworm is expensive to treat and fatal if dogs are untreated.

A respected veterinarian, Dr. Randy Stirling of Hamilton’s Briarwood Animal Hospital, says he was “absolutely shocked” that puppies are being imported from the southern U.S.: “I don’t know how it can be justified.” There’s no shortage of stray dogs and cats in Canada – always a concern because so many get “euthanized” rather than adopted.

Dr. Stirling recalled a meeting of Hamilton vets accidentally discovering the alarming rise of heartworm in dogs last year. “Some 32 veterinarians in the Hamilton area used to see an average of about five cases of heartworm a year,” he says. “Last year it jumped to 37 cases.”

Further examination found that of 63 heartworm cases around Hamilton, 45 were dogs that had been imported from Louisiana and the southern U.S. Eighteen of these owners declined to have their dogs treated –“too expensive.” These 18 dogs, if bitten by mosquitoes, are an immediate threat to other dogs, and all will die horrible deaths in untreated.

Jim Sykes, who recently resigned as CEO of the Hamilton SPCA and this week was appointed to the newly-created job of Chief Operating Officer of the Ontario SPCA, said Hamilton “piggy-backed” on the U.S. program to have Katrina dogs adopted. Hamilton chose to be a partner with BARK rescue because it “invests heavily in testing, treatment and care of animals.”

Last May he was quoted in the Hamilton Spectator saying “overpopulation” of dogs in urban areas is generally under control,” which justified importing Louisiana dogs. Sykes says adoptions doubled from 1,600 to 3,200.

Dr. Stirling is unconvinced. That Hamilton SPCA imported 600 dogs from Louisiana, “makes no sense, when we have no shortage of stray dogs here.”

He says it is essential that the provincial government authorize (and pay for) a new study in the increase of heartworm disease. The last full study was done in 2002: “We thought the disease was almost stamped out in Ontario,  but now it will take years to correct.”

Of some 400,000 dogs tested in 2002, 258 had heartworm. “It was usually two or three worms in the heart. Some of these Louisiana dogs may have 150 worms in the heart, the lungs, the kidneys. A mosquito bites an infected Louisiana dog, then bites a local dog, and the local dog then has heartworm. Symptoms are lethargy, weariness, loss of appetite and eventual collapse. Treatment can cost well over $1,000.”

Mr. Sykes acknowledges heartworm is a concern, and feels rainy weather increases risk, and that “snowbirds” who vacation in Florida with their dogs may return with the dogs infected.

As well as the Hamilton SPCA, Dr. Stirling says there are 16 independent dog rescue groups in the region that import Louisiana dogs. Even though the HAVM has persuaded Hamilton to stop importing dogs, others continue to import them.

It is a lucrative business, and source of income. People think they are doing humane work by giving a home to a Katrina or Hurricane dog. In another sense, the program seems a virtual puppy mill, sending dogs across the U.S. and into Canada.

While the Hamilton SPCA sold Louisiana dogs for $470 each, they usually charge $330 for local adoptive dogs, and $410 if it’s a puppy. (Toronto Humane Society charges a tax-deductible $100 for a dog, “or what you can afford;” Toronto Animal Services (TAS) charges $166.25 for dogs, $99.75 for cats).

Dr. Stirling says Ontario government vets have tried for three years to alert the government on the need for a heartworm investigation, but have gotten no response. He also says he understands some Louisiana dogs have been sent to Calgary and the state of Washington – “where I hear they have had an outbreak of diseases common in the south but until now unknown in the north.”

Michael O’Sullivan, chairman and CEO of the Humane Society of Canada, has visited BARK in Louisiana and says to him “it makes no sense to import American dogs when we have no shortage of abandoned dogs here.” He thinks the BARK people are sincere and genuinely seek to help dogs. They are a registered charity.

O’Sullivan says he’s visited the Hamilton SPCA “and I’ve seen these dogs in cages piled on top of one another, waiting to be sold.”

Ian McConachie, Senior Communicator at the Toronto Humane Society (which has abundant dogs for adoption) is also concerned about the rise of heartworm and says since Hurricane Katrina, heartworm nearly tripled in Ontario, from 244 cases to 676. “Even that doesn’t explain a tenfold increase in the Hamilton area between 2007-2008.

Dr. J. Owen Slocombe, recently retired professor of pathobiology at the University of Guelph has done extensive studies of heartworm disease. He’s known in the profession as “Dr. Heartworm,” and is being approached to come out of retirement to conduct another provincial study – if the Ontario government will provide funding.

At the moment, it looks as if an epidemic is looming, and vets like Randy Stirling urge everyone with a dog to ensure they don’t have heartworm.

Another danger of this parasitic disease transmitted by mosquitoes is that wildlife is vulnerable, especially foxes, wolves coyotes, raccoons: “Once heartworm disease infects wildlife, a permanent source of infection becomes established since there is no preventive medication or treatment for wild animals.”

Category: News