Is Mental Health Important for Healing? And why Don’t Vets Recommend Year-Round Heartworm Prevention?

My dog has heartworm. Her old vet recommended HeartGuard but for only six months. We used it but she still got heartworm. Now she has...

Dr. Eric Barchas  |  Jun 14th 2009


My dog has heartworm. Her old vet recommended HeartGuard but for only six months. We used it but she still got heartworm. Now she has to be caged for a very long time.

I believe she is getting very depressed because of the changes in her life. I brush her as always, but can’t let her run or chase balls, as she is used to. Her new vet also put her on a diet to lose about 7 lbs. A time of stress like she is going through now is never a good time to lose weight, I believe, so she can lose those pounds after she gets through the heartworm treatment. At least that is what I think.

I am deeply concerned about the depression I see though. What can I do? Is there some kind of med I can give her to get her through all this? Or something I can do to make her feel better?

Why do vets never concern themselves with the mental problems that can accompany physical ones? Surely how a dog feels must play a part in getting well just as it does in humans. Could you please suggest something I can do?

Thanks.

Vi, loving mom of Zoey, age three.
Wheat Ridge, Colorado

In humans is well documented that physical health and mental health are closely connected. Depressed people are more likely to suffer from a host of illnesses. Illness often makes people depressed. And sick people who have strong social networks or family support get well faster.

Pets, incidentally, provide companionship and support that have been shown by numerous studies to benefit human health, prevent illness, and help sick people grow healthy.

Clinical depression has not yet been defined in dogs. And I am not aware of evidence-based studies that show happiness and mental health therapies are beneficial for dogs with heartworm.

But, as much as I support the concept of evidence-based medicine, I’m going to break away from it on this one. I think it’s clear that happy pets will heal faster than depressed ones.

Along those lines, I encourage families to visit pets that are hospitalized for treatment when I’m working. Being among loved ones motivates individuals to get well.

In Zoey’s case, I do not recommend antidepressants. Instead, focus on developing new, fun routines that won’t interfere with Zoey’s recovery from heartworm. She can’t play ball, but she can still snuggle, sit on the sofa with you while you watch TV, and sit at your feet while you read a book. You can keep her on a leash in the house if necessary. You can hold her on your lap if she’s small enough.

Be creative. One client of mine purchased a child’s bicycle trailer for her dog when canine arthritis made walks in the park impossible. The dog was thrilled to ride along as her owner pedaled her through Golden Gate Park. Just because your dog can’t exercise doesn’t mean she can’t get out and enjoy fresh air and sunshine.

I agree that weight loss needn’t be a priority at this time. However, remember that decreased activity can lead to weight gain. Excess weight stresses the heart. At the very least, try to make sure that Zoey doesn’t gain weight.

As for six month heartworm prevention . . . it is not recommended by the experts. The American Heartworm Society and Companion Animal Parasite Council recommend continuous heartworm prophylaxis in all dogs and cats. So do I.