Most stray dogs found with heartworm are euthanized because it's very expensive to treat.
Last year, island residents Trasi Sharp and Liza Clouse rescued Hazel, a female Mastiff Pointer, from a kill shelter in Pasco County. Hazel wasn't fully grown yet but tested positive for heartworm.
"She was going to be euthanized but we were able to rescue her and get her treated," said Clouse.
Liza Clouse, co-owner of Island Paws, poses in the store with a 'Hazel for Heartworm Prevention' t-shirt to benefit Lee County Animal Services. Mckenzie Cassidy.
Neither Sharp nor Clouse know Hazel's exact age, but they estimate she is about 2-years-old and undergoes her final blood test on Aug. 1 to verify that she is heartworm free.
The disease, which lives in the heart and pulmonary arteries of infected dogs, is spread by mosquitoes which live year-round in Southwest Florida. According to the Lee County Mosquito Control District, there are 16 species of mosquito capable of spreading the disease.
Lee County is home to eight of them.
For pet owners, detecting heartworm is a challenge because the disease is progressive, and infected dogs show no signs of the disease at first, but as it goes untreated the dog develops gastrointestinal problems, fatigue, reduced appetite, weight loss, and eventually death.
"Heartworm disease is a big deal here in Florida because with the warm weather we have mosquitoes year round," said Ria Brown, public information specialist for Lee County Animal Services.
The only line of defense for pet owners is monthly preventative treatments, but with high unemployment and a sluggish economy some pet owners can't afford the treatments.
In May, Animal Services released a statement that they were concerned about the growing number of animals entering local shelters that tested positive for heartworm. Lee County's shelter is one of the few that treat heartworm-positive dogs before adoption.
"The best protection for your pet from heartworm disease is timely preventative treatment," said Dr. Suzanne Vazzana, veterinarian for Lee County Animal Services.
Vazzana said the best way to learn about the options available is to speak with a veterinarian.
Sharp and Clouse, owners of Island Paws and the Over Easy Cafe on Sanibel Island, witnessed the devastating affects it had on Hazel and decided they wanted to help other infected dogs by raising money for Animal Services.
They organized a fundraiser, "Hazel for Heartworm Prevention," to raise awareness about the importance of prevention.
T-shirts were made with a picture of Hazel. They come in four colors, crew neck, and ladies v-neck and cost $25 each. Proceeds from the t-shirts benefit the Animal Trust Fund to assist pet owners who can't afford to buy heartworm treatment.
"Trasi and Liza were concerned that many dogs would suffer from the disease because their owners could not afford the treatment," said Donna Ward, director of Lee County Animal Services. "The funds will allow us to make this treatment available for these dogs."
Average treatments cost between $12-15 per month, said Brown, depending on the brand and some are bundled with flea and tick treatments.
"There are all sorts of things on the market. Some are oral, some topical, some an injection. There are all kinds of options for prevention," said Brown.
Brown said it's important to prevent heartworm because the treatments are far more costly once the dog is infected. She is hoping that some of the proceeds from the fundraiser can also help dogs that tested positive but are without a home or their owners couldn't afford it.
According to the American Heartworm Society, the way veterinarians treat heartworm depends on how long it has been in the dog's system, anything from injections for serious cases to using doses of the monthly treatments.
Of course, whether the treatment is effective hinges on the severity of the dog's symptoms, so early detection is key.
"We don't want any dog to needlessly have to suffer from heartworm disease," said Brown. "It's sad when we find animals that are heartworm positive. Prevention is so important."
"Hazel for Heartworm Prevention" t-shirts are for sale at Island Paws at 630 Tarpon Bay Road in Sanibel and at the Lee County Animal Services at 5600 Banner Drive in Fort Myers.
To place an order, email firstname.lastname@example.org.