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An illness or sign of abuse?

Some experts say the disease doesn't always constitute pet abuse, as is Pam Bondi's rationale for keeping a St. Bernard from his original owners.

Published July 18, 2006

Pam Bondi recently looked into a Fox News camera, held her hands about a foot apart and told viewers nationwide the St. Bernard she adopted after Hurricane Katrina had enormous heartworms.

That, she said, is the main reason she will not return the dog to Steve and Dorreen Couture of Louisiana.

But a case of heartworms doesn't necessarily mean the Coutures abused the dog, experts say.

"It's not an open-and-shut case," said Dr. Lynn Buzhardt, a Louisiana veterinarian who is on the board of the American Heartworm Society. "I see a lot of gray area. Because the dog came with heartworms, it doesn't mean a veterinarian or the owners were negligent."

But the presence of heartworms in the St. Bernard - called Master Tank by the Coutures and Noah by Bondi - has become a central point in the controversy over the dog's ownership. Bondi's vet has said the problem was severe and advanced.

An attorney for Rhonda Rineker of Dunedin, who adopted a second dog raised by the Coutures, says that dog also was seriously infected with heartworms.

A Sept. 22, 2005, Pinellas Humane Society report shows that the Coutures' shepherd mix tested positive for heartworms and had high levels of the antibodies for the parasite in its bloodstream.

But because it takes six months for heartworms to mature and for a dog to test positive, Buzhardt said a test could have been given in July and rendered a negative result.

As for the St. Bernard, Buzhardt said that because everyone acknowledges that the dog had heartworms, "maybe the vet delayed treating the dog for health reasons. We just don't know."

The Coutures, who were forced to flee their home in St. Bernard, La., during the storm, say they cared for their dogs well. They say they gave the St. Bernard medicine for heartworms, which he already had when they got him when he was 10 months old.

The Coutures are suing Bondi, Rineker and the Pinellas Humane Society - which rescued the dogs in September 2005 - to get them back.

Dogs and cats, especially ones that live outdoors, are prime candidates for heartworms, a parasitic disease transmitted by mosquitoes.

The larvae migrate in the animal's pulmonary arteries where they grow and cause lung problems, said Dr. Amara Estrada, a veterinary cardiologist at the University of Florida's College of Veterinary Medicine.

Heartworms could eventually cause heart problems.

Heartworms are most prevalent in dogs and cats in the southeast U.S. A monthly pill halts the disease. If a dog misses a month or two of the pill, Estrada said the animal should be okay.

But not in Louisiana, Buzhardt said.

If that happens, "the dog will very likely become infected because the infection rate is quite high due to the big mosquito problem," she said.

The worms look like angel hair pasta and can reach 12 inches in length. Buzhardt said there is no accurate way to measure the length of a heartworm inside a dog.

Keeping a dog inside does not guarantee it will remain free of heartworms.

The only way to prevent an animal from being bitten, Estrada said, is to "keep him in a bubble."

Still, having heartworms is not a death sentence, said Dr. Donald Duplantier, a 28-year veterinarian who has worked in St. Bernard, La., since 1980.

Treatment includes two shots, and it could take a few months. The cost could run from $500 to $1,000, depending on the dog's weight and the amount of pre-treatment that's done. Some veterinarians also put infected dogs on the heartworm preventive to keep new worms from maturing, Buzhardt said.

Estrada said there is no way to tell how long an infected dog can live with worms. "With every dog it's going to vary, depending on immune response and how many worms are in their bodies," she said.

Dogs in St. Bernard who never got heartworm preventive medicine live five to eight years, Duplantier said.

Demorris A. Lee can be reached at 445-4174 or

[Last modified July 18, 2006, 06:04:23]

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