Heartworms. Those icky, parasitic worms that are spread through the bites of mosquitoes, infecting countless pets in our service area. The combination of warm weather, standing water, and lack of heartworm preventative make East St. Louis a breeding ground for this disease. And unfortunately, heartworm disease can result in severe lung disease, heart failure, other organ damage, and death in pets if left untreated.

But heartworms can easily be prevented thanks to a variety of veterinarian-prescribed pills and chewables on the market. So why is this disease so rampant in our service area?

Families with pets in the Metro East face many obstacles when it comes to obtaining resources. For one, accessibility. There are no veterinarians in East St. Louis. Residents must drive to Belleville or St. Louis in order to receive services, and for those without transportation, this isn’t an option.

Affordability. 45.4% of residents in our service area live at or below the poverty line. When families are trying to figure out how to pay for their child’s medication or school uniforms, it’s no wonder those seemingly unnecessary chewables for the family dog get pushed to the bottom of the list.

Finally, the process of actually obtaining heartworm preventative is time and resource intensive. $10 a month for preventative might not seem like a lot, but combine that with the office visit and heartworm test needed to prescribe the medication, lost wages to get the dog to the vet, gas money for a friend to provide transportation, etc… it all adds up.

You might be thinking– “If the family cannot afford this expense, they shouldn’t have a dog in the first place.” That couldn’t be further from the truth. Families facing these obstacles especially need pets in their lives–to make them laugh, help them grieve, teach children compassion and empathy. Not to mention, if we took all of these pets away from their loving families, where would they go? Shelters are at maximum capacity and lives are at stake. It just makes sense to keep them with the families that love them.

How does Gateway Pet Guardians help families battling heartworm disease? Unfortunately, we do not have the resources to provide preventative and treatment for dogs that test positive. So what’s left? I’ll share two cases in which our work has made a significant impact.



Many families we work with have no idea that heartworms even exist. How they are transmitted. The dangers to their pets. We recently had vetting services donated thanks to Banfield Pet Hospital and Xena went in for treatment for double ear infections. The clinic provided a free heartworm test for Xena in addition to the other services they provided. Sadly, Xena tested positive for heartworms. When I returned her to her family, we had a lengthy discussion about the dreaded worms. Her family listened intently.

A few days later, I received this text message. They purchased heartworm preventative for not only Xena, but the other dog in their home, too. In this case, awareness and education made all the difference. The preventatives will not treat the heartworms Xena already has, but it will prolong her life so the family can experience many more years together.


I received a call from King’s dad on our outreach hotline. He was in a panic. King was throwing up everything he ate, had labored breathing, and was in obvious distress. I visited and noticed the tell-tale signs of congestive heart failure (CHF). CHF occurs when a dog’s heart can’t deliver enough blood to his or her body, because those pesky heartworms are in the way. So fluid backs up, most often into the lungs, causing a distended belly. I’m not a veterinarian, but I explained to King’s dad what I thought was going on, and together we took him to the vet.

Sure enough, King was in CHF. His owner couldn’t afford treatment. Truthfully, many families can’t on their own–it’s very costly. We helped King’s dad make the most difficult decision a pet owner must make. We were with him as he held King and said good-bye. Afterwards, we hugged. He shared pictures of King on his phone. One of him being hugged by his god-daughter. Another of him wearing his favorite team’s jersey. We laughed at stories and cried in sadness at his loss. But we were there for him every step of the way.

Fast forward several weeks, and I received this text from King’s dad. In the process of losing King, he learned about heartworms and how dangerous they are to a dog’s health. He had three other dogs, and purchased preventatives for all of them.

These are just two cases of many we are working in the Metro East. Thanks to awareness and education, these two families were able to take action and purchase preventative. But part of our work is also providing understanding and support to families that cannot afford preventative and treatment. We are there for them, too.

Our work in the community is so important. We work to break down barriers so families can access services for their pets–accessibility, affordability, education. Please, consider donating to our Community Program today to help us keep pets with their families and out of the area shelter. Thank you!

— Janet Roberts
Gateway Pet Guardians
Community Director