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Risks of Natural Heartworm Treatments for Dogs

Heartworm Treatments for Dogs

If your dog was found to be heartworm positive, you may be wondering whether there are any natural heartworm treatments for dogs. Perhaps, you have heard that the treatment to kill heartworms in dogs is risky and involves the use of potent drugs, or perhaps you cannot afford the cost of heartworm treatment. While it may be tempting to try out dog natural heartworm treatments considering that there are several offered on the web, there are important risks and considerations to keep in mind. Learning more about heartworm disease can help you better understand these risks.


The Heartworm Cycle

You may already know that heartworm disease in dogs is caused by mosquitoes, but you may not be aware of the whole cycle.

The scientific name for heartworm is dirofilaria immitis and the whole cycle starts when a mosquito bites a heartworm infected dog, fox, coyote, or wolf. When the mosquito bites this infected dog, fox, coyote or wolf, it ingests some heartworm larvae along with its bloodmeal.

The larvae then develop inside the mosquito (L1, L2) until they reach the infective stage (L3). The mosquito then at this point bites the dog and through the puncture wound introduces the infective larvae into the dog.

The larvae at first will just reside in the dog's subcutaneous tissues where they will develop for about 2 months. During this time, monthly heartworm prevention products like Heartguard given monthly are capable of killing the larvae; however, once the larvae move from tissue to bloodstream, and travel towards the heart and blood vessels of the lungs where they continue developing into adults, preventatives will no longer be able to kill them, and the dog will require treatment.

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Did you know? Adult heartworms can grow up to a foot long and can live inside a dog for up to five years! Now that's a long lifespan!

did you know

Traditional Heartworm Treatment

Parvo is part of the five in one vaccine for dogs

Parvo is part of the five in one vaccine for dogs

When a dog has heartworm disease, treatment involves giving injections of the drug immiticide to kill the adult heartworms. The treatment at this stage is known as "adulticide treatment."

In the "three-dose protocol," dogs are given a series of immiticide under the form of intramuscular injections into the belly so to kill the adult worms. Typically, after the first shot, the dog stays in the hospital for a day of monitoring, then follows a month of strict rest at home, and then, afterward, the vet will give 2 more shots 24 hours apart followed again by 30 days rest.

In the traditional method instead, dogs are given two immiticide injections in 24 hours and are then sent home for 30 days of rest. While this latter method is faster, in a dog with severe heartworm disease, it can be risky due to potential for adverse reactions from too many worms killed at once.

Other drugs prescribed from the veterinary office may include pain relievers, anti-inflammatory drugs to reduce inflammation in the lungs and doxycycline given prior to the immiticide injection so to eliminate Wolbachia, a bacteria associated with heartworms. If was recently discovered that Wolbachia bacteria protects heartworms and play a role in facilitating the onset of adverse events associated with heartworm treatment.

dog crate

A Word About Risks

The main risk that comes with heartworm treatment is the fact that, when several adult heartworms are killed at once, there are risks for  pulmonary thromboembolism. Basically, when large numbers of worms are dying all at once there are risks of them getting stuck in the dog's pulmonary arteries that connect the heart to the lungs. If worms get stuck here, they can cut off blood supply to a lobe of the lung.

In an ideal situation, the dead worms would stick to the vessel walls and then would be broken down by the liver and kidneys and be excreted, but there is no guarantee this will happen. The chances though lower if the dog is kept quiet

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Cage rest and exercise restriction is needed during heartworm treatment because dogs who are allowed to be hyper have higher blood pressure and this heightens the chances for dead worms to be pushed into a pulmonary artery. According to the American Heartworm Society, these risks though are lowered when dogs are given three treatments (the three-dose protocol) so that less heartworms are killed each time.

" Regardless of the severity of the disease (with the exception of caval syndrome), the three-dose protocol is recommended by the American Heartworm Society due to the increased safety and efficacy. "~American Heartworm Society

Risks of Natural Heartworm Treatment

dog natural

You may have stumbled on several natural heartworm treatments for dogs. Unfortunately, many are ineffective and those that promise to kill worms in the gastrointestinal tract won't work for heartworms considering that heartworms live in the dog's heart and blood vessels and not in the gastrointestinal tract.

Caution is needed because of many unscrupulous websites advertising products that kill heartworms when they do not.

One popular treatment suggests using black walnut to treat heartworm in dogs, but this treatment doesn't work. Not only are you playing with fire by letting heartworm disease continue, but you can also cause toxic effects due to the fact that moldy nuts can cause neurological problems, warns veterinarian Dr. Gary.

On top of that, if black walnut hull was actually able to kill adult heartworms (it does not), treated dogs would still require hospitalization, careful monitoring, supportive care and exercise restriction to go along with the treatment, points out veterinarian Dr. Jo.  Any killed worms would therefore still risk causing complications (again, if black walnut hulls were truly effective).

And for those wondering about Chinese medicine, unfortunately, there are no good Chinese herbs that will work for heartworms, explains veterinarian Dr. Zoe.

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According to the American Heartworm Society, no natural therapies have shown to be safe and effective to treat heartworm disease in dogs. Using natural products to treat dog heartworm disease are risky because they allow the damage caused by adult heartworm to continue, and the longer heartworms are present, the more damage is expected.

Sure, there may be circumstances when holistic or alternative medicine may be considered, but it's also important to consider that there are circumstances when due to the seriousness of a disease, the use of alternative treatments could mean jeopardizing the health of a pet, and no qualified veterinarian would ever recommend that, points out Critical Care Vet. 

If you are really determined to look for holistic remedies for your dog, your best bet is consulting with a holistic vet. He or she may be able to suggest additional options that complement conventional veterinary care and that are custom-tailored to your dog.

No “natural” or herbal therapies have been shown to be safe and effective for the prevention or treatment of heartworm disease."~ American Heartworm Society


  • American Heartworm Society: Prevention, Diagnosis and Treatment of Heartworm Infections in Dogs

Photo Credits:

Lifecycle of D. immitis Cú Faoil (text), Anka FriedrichDirecoes_anatomicas.svg: Rhcastilhos Mosquito gender en.svg: LadyofHats derivative work: Anka Friedrich- Own work This file was derived from: Dog tan.svg: Direcoes anatomicas.svg: Mosquito female.svg: Mosquito gender en.svg: CC BY-SA 3.0

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