Gearing up for Heartworm Awareness Month in April, we caught up with Annie Blumenfeld, a 17-year old young lady with a big heart and a passion to help spread awareness about heartworm prevention.
Looking for a loving and loyal friend to adopt, Annie and her family began searching for three years through countless pet stores, rescue shelters, newspapers, and private dog breeders. Their search happily ended when they stumbled upon a two-year-old shaggy dog that had been rescued from a high-kill shelter in Houston, Texas. Teddy was rescued by Houston Shaggy Dog Rescue where it was discovered that he tested positive for heartworm disease. Teddy underwent treatment at the Shaggy Dog Rescue and was soon after united with Annie in his new forever home.
After hearing about what Teddy went through and learning about the disease, that is when Annie decided to take action. She was inspired to found Wags 4 Hope, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that supports shelter animal’s medical needs and spreads heartworm awareness. Also a talented artist, Annie sells custom dog and cat portraits and gives all of the proceeds to shelters and rescues. Between her paintings and donations from supporters, she has raised over $40,000. Wanting to take her advocacy a step further, she has also focused on changing legislation and has testified before a legislative committee at the State Capitol in Connecticut. Because of her advocacy, all dog license forms in the state come with a heartworm disease awareness message, which she personally designed.
The EmBARKadero: Annie, it seems the harsh reality of the heartworm treatment Teddy had to undergo had a significant impact on you. Tell us a little bit about what Teddy’s treatment was like and what real dangers come along with heartworm disease.
Annie: Teddy had to be given two injections of arsenic and remain in a crate. He had to be inactive and carefully monitored for a couple of months. The treatment for heartworm disease is very expensive and difficult for dogs to recover from. It can also be potentially toxic to the dog’s body and can cause serious complications, such as life-threatening blood clots to the dog’s lungs. Treatment is very expensive because it requires multiple visits to the veterinarian, with the process of blood work, and X-rays. The cost ranges from $600 for a small dog to $2,000 for a larger dog.
It broke my heart to learn that my dog had endured great pain. I researched further, and learned that heartworm disease is extremely serious and can result in severe lung disease, heart failure, other organ damage, and even death. Heartworm disease is caused by a parasitic worm, Dirofilaria immitis, from mosquitoes. These worms are spread through the bite of a mosquito and produce offspring, while living inside the dog. The worms are called “heartworms” because they live in the heart, lungs, and other blood vessels of an infected animal. In the United States, heartworm disease is most common in the south because of the extreme heat in which the mosquitoes thrive in, but they are present and highly populated in all fifty states. Heartworm disease is also present throughout Europe, Australia, Canada, and Africa.
Having learned the devastating effects of heartworm disease from my loving companion, by founding Wags 4 Hope I seek to educate pet owners across the country about the disease. I cannot imagine my life without Teddy, and I am so thankful he made a complete recovery.
The EmBARKadero: Are you finding that many pet owners are unaware of the real dangers of heartworm disease as well as the expense and difficulty of recovery once diagnosed?
Annie: Many pet owners are not aware about what heartworm is and how expensive the treatment can be. For those that do know, with the change of seasons there is a common misconception that their pet does not need to be on preventative medication in the colder months which is not the case. In terms of preventatives, there are many safe FDA approved products that can be used. All of these products require a veterinarian’s prescription. These preventatives are used monthly and are simple. There is a vast range of different products from liquids to tablets. The use of preventatives depends on your location and your dog. Pet owners should talk to their veterinarian about the best way to protect their pet.
The EmBARKadero: We are so happy that Teddy pulled through. Tell us a little bit about that shaggy guy!
Annie: Teddy will only drink water from a crystal glass with ice cubes. He has many toys and for some reason his favorite part of his stuff animals are the labels. He treats each one so carefully it’s very funny to watch. He loves to get tickled under his arm, really enjoys walks and long car rides.
The EmBARKadero: What was it like gearing up to testify before congress?
Annie: I did not know what to expect. I had watched many committee meetings on TV before I even had this idea, since they always seemed so interesting, especially those involving the common core and hearing all of the different points of view. I wanted to make sure I was positioning my proposal in the best light possible and that involved a lot of research.
The EmBARKadero: Have you gotten any personal feedback about what you're doing?
Annie: I receive many kind emails from pet owners discussing my work. It means a lot to me when pet owners share their heartworm stories. In light of April being National Heartworm Awareness month, I asked pet owners to reach out to me sharing their experiences. I then told their stories on my organization’s Facebook page (www.facebook.com/wags4hope/). Many people stop Teddy all the time when I walk him, and I always explain how he was rescued and his story. A lot of these pet owners had never heard of heartworm disease too, so I always try to get the word out even on walks.
The EmBARKadero: What do you see in the future for Wags 4 Hope?
Annie: I hope to have Wags 4 Hope clubs in different schools. I am looking into funding individuals who cannot afford their pet’s heartworm treatment. I currently can only donate to 501(c)3 organizations, however this is something that is needed, and I would love to be able to help relieve these costs. I also hope to expand more on the pet responsibility end of my cause focusing on adolescents in the south, where some pet owners have a different mindset on pet care. I would also like to expand on my legislative efforts having another state follow Connecticut’s change of Dog License. Unfortunately, some pet owners cannot afford the preventatives. In terms of the expense, I would like to expand W4H in the near future to be able to pay for veterinarian bills for pet owners’ in financial difficulty.
The EmBARKadero: And what about yourself? What are your future career goals? Artist? Running a nonprofit? Something totally different?
Annie: I am planning on pursuing a dual major in communications and business while in college. I have always dreamed of running my own company: one that combines my passions, while giving back. I would like to work for a rescue organization when I am older, since I am so inspired by the incredible rescue videos I see online. Regardless, I hope to continue Wags 4 Hope while doing all of this for as long as I can.
The EmBARKadero: Annie, The EmBARKadero is so impressed with your efforts, we’d like to make a cash donation to your cause but we couldn’t resist throwing in an extra $45 for an 8x12 painting of our Social Media Director…Charlie the Reluctant Retriever. Are you up for it?
Annie: I would be honored to! That is so kind of you!!
A great big thank you to Annie for spending some time with us for this interview to help spread the word on heartworm awareness!
To learn more about Wags 4 Hope and Annie’s latest efforts, please visit their website at www.wags4hope.org. Also follow them on Facebook (www.facebook.com/wags4hope/) and Twitter (www.twitter.com/wags4hope).
And stay tuned for Annie’s painting of Charlie (grinning away below in his 2015 Christmas Photo) which we will post once it is completed! We just know his head will get big (well, bigger than it already is) after he finds out a painting of him is being commissioned!