Research Magazine

Auburn Research
Fall / Winter 2021
Heart of the Matter
Auburn-developed method may improve heartworm detection for dogs and other pets
Drs. Lindsay Starkey, Byron Blagburn and Sarah Zohdy with Daisy
Pictured from left: Drs. Lindsay Starkey, Byron Blagburn and Sarah Zohdy with Daisy.

Canine heartworm disease is a serious and potentially fatal disease of the heart and lungs of dogs worldwide with cases predicted to increase. While most detection tests require blood samples, Auburn University researchers have developed a non-invasive heartworm detection method that is fast, can be paired with existing tests to confirm infection — and perhaps most beneficial — is painless.

The interdisciplinary research team is comprised of Drs. Lindsay Starkey and Byron Blagburn from the College of Veterinary Medicine; Dr. Melissa Boersma with Auburn's Mass Spectrometry Lab; and Dr. Sarah Zohdy, formerly with Auburn and now with the Centers for Disease Control.

“This approach to heartworm testing could change the way we diagnose heartworm infections in dogs,” said Blagburn. “It also could prove useful in many situations, including at shelter and rescue organizations.”

This new method allows non-invasive sampling of breath volatiles in less than two minutes. It is followed by gas chromatography to detect key compounds present only in infected animals. Testing can be completed during a typical veterinarian examination. Alternatively, this test could enable the convenience of at-home/mail-in sampling by pet owners where captured breath volatiles are mailed to a lab for analysis, according to the researchers.

A dog sits in a chair

“This approach to heartworm testing could change the way we diagnose heartworm infections in dogs.”

– Dr. Byron Blagburn

“This non-invasive technology might also potentially assist with heartworm diagnosis in other affected species like humans and/or cats,” Starkey added. “However, we have not yet looked at cats.”

Canine heartworm disease is caused by Dirofilaria immitis, a mosquito-borne pathogen that infects the heart and lungs of dogs, cats and ferrets. Present in both developed and developing nations, this pathogen may infect up to 800,000 dogs in the United States alone. Because it can be fatal, annual testing is recommended.

The primary benefit of this development is that it is painless for the animal, Blagburn said. It is also fast and convenient and does not require a blood sample.

Moreover, if this new method proves to be effective for other species, it could be significantly more efficient than currently used methods, Starkey added.

“The available diagnostic options for cats and other hosts can be either invasive or difficult to interpret,” Starkey said.

Auburn has filed for a provisional patent on the technology and is currently seeking a co-development partner to make it market ready.

Last updated: October 18, 2021