Mochi tested positive for Heartworm

It took me four weeks to realize our relationship will still be okay

Four weeks ago, Mochi tested positive for Heartworm disease1, and our vet told us that treatment takes 6-9 months and that Mochi would not be allowed to exercise or play with her friends during that entire time.

It was a lot to process, especially because I had been vigilant about her preventative medication, and I spent a couple of days simultaneously holding so many different emotions — fear, frustration, determination, grief.

I stopped writing this newsletter entirely, even though time passed and I started to feel better and I wanted to write again.

I just didn't want to write about Heartworm.

Instead, I wanted to write about the pretend voice we use when we're talking as Mochi, or my mega dog treats cost comparison spreadsheet, or that we'd started training Touch lately and how hilariously terrible that's been going.

Four weeks later, finally, I'm ready to share our whole story with Heartworm so far, including how wonderfully Mochi is doing after her first month of treatment, because I feel a lot better these days, and because I need to. I need to so I can feel good, not guilty, about writing about the fun parts of our lives again. I also need to because reading blog posts from other dog parents who had gone through the same thing helped me the most, but they were few and far between. I can help change that, so I'm going to.

The Initial Shock and Fear

When I first found out about the diagnosis, I blurted out all my feelings on Instagram. I wrote this post because friends and loved ones were asking about Mochi, and I needed a way to experience sharing her news only once. Back then, repeating the story was too hard on me. I needed a URL I could just copy, paste, and send.

The full text is below. (If you already read Mochi's Instagram posts, please feel free to skip past them to read about where we are now.)

It breaks my heart to share that Mochi has tested positive for heartworms.

We’d been waiting for results of a second test to be certain, and now that we are, I have a lot of feelings that I need to get out in one place.

First, I fully expect Mochi to survive her treatment and be a healthy dog afterward. Heck, her personality might even change slightly, because it seems like she’s had heartworm the entire time we’ve had her, and it has some effects even if she wasn’t symptomatic yet.

What worries me most, is what our relationship will be like during her treatment. For the next 6-7 months (starting Monday), Mochi’s heart rate is not allowed to go up. Her body, including her blood stream, will be dealing with a lot — and any exercise could cause a blood clot, which is the most common way dogs die in this situation.

So. For 7 months, no play dates, no walks that aren’t bathroom breaks, no mom and Mochi playtime in the dog park. No running.

Many of you know how hard Mochi and I have been working to build our relationship. What scares me the most is what will happen during these months, where all the play that has changed us forever, and that I had planning on working on further, will have to be put nearly on full stop. I’m scared our relationship will get worse, and that she’ll start to associate me with pain, with side effects, with hurt. I love her so much, and that thought really breaks my heart.

On the other hand, I know that we can get through this, probably even stronger than before. We’re prepping no-exercise games, mental enrichment, and of course, so much cuddle time.

And yet, this is so so scary, and I’ve never done this before, and I’m simultaneously so confident that I’ll be able to execute her treatment plan flawlessly, and so so scared of how much this will change us. Her full plan takes 9 months, the same number of months that she’s been a part of our family. Thinking about that is daunting. I feel like we’d just found our footing.

If any of you have gone through this before, I’d love any advice you have, especially for fearful dogs who are still coming out of their shell.

Mochi, you’re gonna get through this, and I love you so much.❤️

The night I posted that was a rough night. But it felt good to write it and to cry and allow my body to help me and process my emotions. A few days later, the shock of it all wore off, and I felt more confident in our vet's plan and more in charge of my and Mochi's destiny. So I posted this

Preparing for Mochi’s month one of treatment — antibiotics to start weakening the worms. I think one of the articles I read about this even called it “withering” which is both satisfying and spooky to think about.

I also wanted to give an update on me and answer some FAQs about Heartworm (esp how to prevent it!)

Mom update: I’m feeling a lot better. Talking to people who have gone through this with their pups have helped. Working through strategies and new techniques with my trainer  @rescuetrainrepeat  have helped. Just sitting with this reality and putting my own worries and anxieties into perspective have also helped. Things are gonna be different for the next few months, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t going to have fun together, or enjoy each other’s company. I’m definitely okay with that.

Some heartworm basics that I’m now suddenly very studied-up on:

🐕 The prevention we’re supposed to give our dogs every month WORKS. If your dog doesn’t have heartworm already, and has always been on the preventative, it’s almost complete assurance that your dog will not get it ever.

🐕 Heartworm tests vary because they test for different things, all while using a few drops of your pup’s blood. The sucky thing is — they can sometimes take 6-7 months after your dog gets heartworm before testing positive, because they need enough of a presence (aka the heartworms have to grow and multiply) to be detected. So if you’re a new adopter like me and your pup has a negative test from before adoption, I’d honestly recommend another test when you bring them home instead of waiting for doing it at their annual. That said, we caught Mochi’s at her annual vet visit! So that works too, but DO NOT SKIP THE TEST.

🐕 The only way dogs get HW is from a mosquito bite — after that mosquito has bitten another dog that had it. Basically they’re passing worm babies around in the blood. I also learned that apparently, there’s something about the human immune system where if we get bit, our body kills all the babies before they can get to our hearts!

Happy to answer more questions based on what I know, as I continue to learn and document!

Now, four weeks into Mochi's heartworm antibiotics, a lot has happened.

I did my research — not in a panic, but steadily over time, and as a result, I feel a lot more prepared. 

In many ways, I didn't have a choice, because when it comes to Heartworm treatment, there's conflicting information out there, and there were choices I had to make. For example, in another month, should Mochi get two shots to kill the heartworms, or three? How important is it that she not be moved at all after each shot? How much can Mochi and I play at each stage before I need to be worried that she's too riled up?

I decided that yes, I want her to have three shots (it brings the success rate up from 90% to 98% and all the studies I've read comparing the two options have resulted in nearly zero deaths for dogs in Mochi's stage); and yes, it is extremely important to me that she not be moved and that she be with the vet for observation and not home with me. As for how much we can play, I have to eyeball it each time, but I can tell I'm getting a sense of it just because I'm her mom and spend all my time observing her 😂. 

I'll try to dedicate a future newsletter completely to the research, but in the meantime, if you're interested in reading an in-the-weeds explanation of how heartworms live, travel, and die inside a dog's body, and why dogs need to be put on extreme levels of exercise restriction during treatment, this veterinarian's blog post was the most helpful for me.

My partner and I respectfully asked for changes to Mochi's treatment plan

Getting to the decisions I just talked about involved a lot of stress, anxiety, frustration, and anger. More than anything, I was angry that we live in a world where the treatment of something as common as Heartworm disease wasn't 100% standardized and that experts disagree.

Intellectually, I get it. Despite all our advances, the human race still doesn’t understand enough about human or canine bodies. Different vets, just like different human doctors, have different opinions, levels of experience, and approaches. I understand why our world is imperfect, but that doesn't stop me from feeling frustrated.

So after reading a lot of research papers, talking to Mochi's trainer, and talking to the founder of Mochi’s rescue (rescues frequently deal with Heartworm positive dogs), my partner and I made a series of decisions and then talked it through with our vet. I braced myself for angry "how dare you challenge me" responses each time, but every time, our vet responded graciously, respectfully, and took seriously the concerns we were raising. Now all the details are hashed out, and I finally feel like Mochi has the best chance for success.

I know that this process of going back and forth with your doctor or vet is probably a familiar one for a lot of people. I was an investigative journalist for many years, and I had covered our healthcare system, and one of the most chilling things I’d learned was that getting the best care relied too much on how whether patients (or their family members) advocated for themselves.

And still, when I was first put in that situation of needing to be Mochi's advocate, I froze up. On our first call, I listened and didn't question anything because I was just trying to process what the words being said to me even meant. Looking back now, however, I realize that it’s okay to freeze up on your first call. There can always be a second call, a third one, however many you need. It took me a few weeks to get it together and do my research, talk to people, make decisions, and then communicate them respectfully. That’s okay.

The hardest part for me to deal with in the past weeks is just that the research, the trusted people I called on, and our vet, did not agree on everything. Getting conflicting information from trusted experts is terrifying, because, after a while, you realize that despite being the least experienced person in the room, you have to make the final call. I’m still grappling with that idea today.

Mochi and I are doing really great. Dare I say that we're even thriving?

Mochi's been doing great on her antibiotics this month, with no side effects that I've been able to see. 

Something I'm even more grateful for, however, is that she's been great at taking her medication. I've never given Mochi any kind of hard tablet pill before, and on day one, I hid it into a small cube of Raw Dynamic (think frozen raw beef), and she ate it so easily. It was a huge relief, and now, every time I give her the medication, I jokingly say that it's time for her amuse-bouche. (I learned the word last year and clearly, this is the best way to use it.)

Because she isn't allowed to play or do long walks outside, we've been playing and cuddling more inside. In retrospect, it makes sense that she and I have gotten closer because of it — from sheer proximity alone — but these days, Mochi's gotten a lot stickier! (Get it?) She follows me around, more readily jumps up onto the couch or bed to cuddle, and comes running anytime she hears me pick up her collar and leash. In our ninth month together, Mochi still respects our "no big hellos and no big goodbyes" policy to make sure she doesn't develop separation anxiety, but now when I come home and wait out that initial calm period, I go to say hi to her with excitement. Mochi responds by standing up and putting her two front paws on my leg with so much love and affection that yes, I absolutely give her that love and affection back. If I had to guess, I'd say that all this progress is a natural extension of how much our relationship has grown over the last few months, and it's made me realize something very important.

When Mochi got Heartworm, the reason I took it so hard was because I thought a 6-9 month treatment plan would put our relationship on pause or make it deteriorate over time. I’ve been working so hard for 9 months now to earn her trust, her love, and build up her confidence, that I couldn't bear the thought of all that slowly disappearing.

But thankfully, as I’ve now learned, that's not how relationships work.

I know now that all the momentum we've built over the past few months can adapt, just like us. Originally, we'd been channeling all our work into play and more outdoor bravery work, but we can just as easily channel it into plenty of calm play and indoor bravery work. No matter what we're doing, it's the loving time we spend together that counts, and that’s what continues to build our bond together.

I’ll be trying to keep that in mind over the next few months, and I can’t wait to be able to finally write and share more with everyone again.

Sincerely,

🐕 Mochi and 👩🏻 Sisi


Our journey on Instagram

What we’ve shared online since the last newsletter:

  • We gave the Thundershirt another shot, with better results this time. When you have an anxious dog, sometimes, you just have to wait until your bond is stronger to see whether things like the Thundershirt will help.

  • On National Dog Rescue Day, I shared the first video I ever took of Mochi. She was very suspicious of my intentions.

  • We’re still playing games! Here’s what our chill version of the treat chase game looks like inside now, and she’s even gotten better at recall — at least when we’re playing the game. 😅


One last photo

1

I haven’t linked to any explanations of Heartworms, because the first three links I found all have images that you cannot avoid. So here’s a very muted description: A dog with heartworms just means that the dog has a specific parasite in her body. It’s a type of worm that is happy to live and reproduce inside of your dog’s (or cat’s) blood vessels, and as they multiply and take up more space, it gets worse and worse for the dog’s organs.