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Your doctor may have told you "preventive medicine is smart medicine." Many Utah veterinarians say that's also sound advice for your dog.

Canine heartworm disease, a deadly illness transmitted by infected mosquitoes, is no longer something that Utah's dog owners can ignore, according to the Utah Veterinary Association.The key to protecting your dog is prevention.

"Heartworms can be easily and inexpensively prevented with one trip to the veterinarian's office," said Michael R. Marshall, state veterinarian, Utah Department of Agriculture. "An annual blood test and a monthly pill is all a dog needs to prevent heartworms."

Marshall recommends that all Utah dogs be given the heartworm prevention treatments because of the steady increase in reported cases over the past two years.

"Heartworm disease is not an endemic problem in the state. However, the number of reported cases in Utah has progressively increased over the past two years. In 1991, there were 11 cases. In 1992, the number grew to 28," Marshall said.

Marshall attributes the increase in heartworm cases to families moving into the state with infected dogs. The expected summer "mosquito season" - with experts predicting record numbers of mosquitoes after a wet winter - will provide plenty of hosts to pass the disease from one dog to another, Marshall said.

He said the heartworm cycle begins when a mosquito bites an infected dog and picks up the immature larvae form of the heartworm. When the mosquito feeds on a healthy dog, infected larvae is deposited into the dog's bloodstream.

Salt Lake veterinarian Wayne Boam says the process of heartworm infection is slow, making the disease difficult for a dog owner to detect. "The infected larvae develop and move through the body for two to three months before finally entering the heart," Boam said. "Once in the heart, the worm can grow up to 14 inches long and cause severe heart, lung and liver damage to dogs. Unfortunately, a dog may be infected for more then six months before the animal begins to show symptoms."

Boam says treatment for infected dogs is available. However, it is an unattractive option because a veterinarian is forced to kill the adult heartworm chemically, placing the dog in danger.

"Treatment alone may kill the dog," Boam said. "Prevention is simple and easy - for you and your dog."