The many reasons why pet owners may not be compliant with heartworm prevention


ADVERTISEMENTOne of the biggest hurdlesif not the biggest onein eliminating heartworm infection is pet owner compliance with preventive guidelines.

Heartworm infection is on the rise. In fact, between 2013 and 2016, the average number of dogs diagnosed with heartworm disease per clinic rose by a disturbing 21%.1 One of the biggest hurdles-if not the biggest one-in eliminating heartworm infection is pet owner compliance with preventive guidelines. Roughly two-thirds of pets are not on a preventive, according to Christopher J. Rehm, Sr., DVM, president of the American Heartworm Society.2

Although these statistics are unsettling, there is, in fact, a silver lining. Among veterinarians who did report a drop in heartworm incidence since 2013, 64% attributed the change to pet owner behavior.2 By taking a closer look at pet owner compliance and the factors that influence it, veterinarians can gain insights into how to identify compliance challenges and encourage changes in client behavior.

Multiple factors influence compliance

In 2016, Virbac Corporation conducted a survey of dog owners living in the southern United States to assess their knowledge, compliance, and habits surrounding heartworm prevention.3 Results of this survey are highlighted in this article.

One key finding from this survey: pet owner compliance is seldom the result of any single factor but is instead affected by multiple dynamics. Reasons for compliance or noncompliance range from the relationship between pet owner and veterinarian to concerns about using chemicals to personal finances and other factors.

Pet owner compliance is tied to multiple factors

If we look specifically at the proper usage of heartworm products, we can see that pet owners who are most likely to be compliant are those with an active and/or positive relationship with their veterinarian. Conversely, owners who are least likely to be compliant exhibit a lack of knowledge about heartworm infection and the proper use of heartworm prevention. 

Some other factors that drive compliance include personal experience with heartworm disease, concerns about using chemical products, perception of climate, the influence of family culture and habits, finances, and personal environment. 

Factors affecting compliance with heartworm products-from greatest to least

The importance of the veterinarian/client relationship

The relationship between the veterinarian and the client is the single greatest factor affecting pet owner compliance. Dog owners who have had an ongoing relationship with the same veterinarian over a period of time are more likely to be compliant with heartworm products. Similarly, they have a greater awareness and understanding of heartworm disease than do owners who take their dogs to a supply store clinic. Of those respondents who indicated a neutral or negative relationship with their veterinarian, an alarming 86% are noncompliant with heartworm preventive products.

The good news for veterinarians and clinic staff is that they can play an essential role in uncovering the factors that may contribute to noncompliance on an individual level and encouraging more compliant behavior.

Tips to help increase client compliance

1. Educate. Talk with clients about the seriousness of heartworm disease and the need for heartworm prevention. Emphasize that forecasts for heartworm infection prevalence for 2018 are above normal across virtually the entire US.4 Combine big-picture data with local data to drive home the urgency of prevention.

2. Ask questions. Ask about the challenges clients face in being compliant with heartworm prevention and listen to their answers. Because clients may identify more than one challenge, it's important to help them focus on the biggest challenge or the easiest one to overcome. Doing so can result in the most consistent progress.

3. Foster honesty. Encourage clients to be honest about missed doses or any other compliance challenges they face. In return, practice honesty yourself. If you or anyone on your team has ever forgotten or been late with your dog's heartworm preventive, share this detail with your clients. Doing so may make them less inclined to hide noncompliant behavior from you. Practicing this kind of vulnerability is the quickest and most powerful way to build trust.

4. Brainstorm. Work with clients to find ways to make heartworm compliance easier for them. To increase the likelihood of success, aim to focus on brainstorming solutions to a single problem rather than attempting to attack several problems at once.

5. Use positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is proven to be far more effective than reprimands in motivating compliance.

6. Encourage discussion. A two-way exchange of ideas goes a long way in strengthening your relationship with clients.

Although the rising trend in heartworm incidence is disturbing, the good news is that owner compliance with heartworm products can reverse this trend. It's important to understand that there are many factors that influence pet owner compliance. By working closely with clients to emphasize the urgency of prevention and identify specific compliance challenges, veterinary offices can be better equipped to help change client behavior.

We know that the relationship between the pet owner and veterinarian is the biggest factor affecting compliance with heartworm products. This means that veterinary team members have a unique opportunity to improve client compliance and in so doing, shape the landscape of heartworm prevention.

View Heartworm Coverage Sheet.


1. AHS announces findings of new heartworm incidence survey. American Heartworm Society website. Accessed June 18, 2011.

2. Heartworm: where are we today? American Veterinarian website. Accessed June 13, 2018.

3. Data on file, Global Market Research-Pet Owner Compliance Study, 2016. Virbac Corporation.

4. Elevated risk of heartworm disease and Lyme disease continues in 2018. Companion Animal Parasite Council website. Accessed July 3, 2018.

About Virbac Corporation

Founded in 1968 by a French veterinarian, Virbac is an independent pharmaceutical laboratory dedicated to animal health, since the beginning. Currently ranked 8th worldwide, the company is present in more than 100 countries, offering a comprehensive and practical range of products and services covering the majority of species and pathologies. Virbac innovation, based on both technological advances and listening to the customers, relies on reactive production facilities which meet the highest international quality standards. For nearly fifty years, these specific features have allowed the company to build a personalized relationship with veterinarians and farmers in every country. Through this privileged partnership, in which social, health and environmental issues come together, Virbac contributes, day after day, to shape the future of animal health.

Related Videos
merck leptospirosis panel
merck leptospirosis panel
merck leptospirosis panel
dvm360 Live! with Dr. Adam Christman
Vet Perspective parasitology discussion
Vet Perspective parasitology discussion
Vet Perspective
© 2023 MJH Life Sciences

All rights reserved.