After reading this feature you should be able to:
• Identify common conditions that can affect domestic pets
• Recommend the most appropriate treatments for fleas, ticks and worms
• Use your expertise in providing healthcare advice to initiate pet care conversations.
Household pets are complex creatures and can be vulnerable to a wide variety of health conditions. While many of these will need to be dealt with by a vet, there are a number of areas where pharmacists can offer real assistance, adding value with their background as qualified healthcare professionals.
PM asked several pet health experts for their views on how pharmacists can approach the treatment of fleas, ticks and worms, and how they can promote their pet care expertise to the public.
Statistics from the veterinary charity PDSA show that sales of flea treatments drop by a fifth in winter, suggesting that many owners believe their pets are safe from infestation at this time of year.
While it is true that fleas are dormant in cold environments, this isn’t the whole picture, says Bayer Animal Health’s Harry Chapman. “The ideal conditions for fleas to survive are between 18°C-24°C, so a centrally heated house offers fleas excellent protection against the cold winter months.”
Geoffrey Guyot, retail technical manager with animal health company Merial, warns of the risks of failing to understand the key survival tactic of fleas. “Even if fleas don’t reproduce outdoors during the winter months, they will like our homes – they survive the winter by infesting houses,” he says. “People often end up having an infestation around Christmas time, a few weeks after they have switched their heating on.”
Caroline Reay, clinical lead with the pet charity Blue Cross, agrees. “Pets need year-round protection. The best treatment of fleas is prevention, not cure.” And don’t forget the infestation may have started some months prior to being visible, says Harry Chapman.
“Ninety-five per cent of a flea infestation is present in the home as either eggs, larvae or cocoons. They can take a full six months to develop into adult fleas – so it is vital that owners treat their pets all year round.”
Caroline Reay urges caution about adopting a one-size-fits-all approach to eliminating fleas. “In general, using the same product on different animals is not recommended, but there are some products that can be used for more than one species. Label instructions should be read carefully.”
Harry Chapman echoes this, saying that while some products have more than one indication or can be used on multiple animals, it depends on the product licence.
“Some products are licensed to treat fleas on cats, dogs and rabbits and prevent flea infestations on cats and dogs. But some products include active ingredients that are toxic if they are used on the wrong species; for example permethrin is toxic for cats. It is important therefore to make sure pet owners use the correct product and the right pack size for the animal they are treating.”
• Fleas survive the winter by infesting houses
• Owners might not notice outward signs of a worm infestation in their pet – which is why regular worming is so important
• Ticks prefer to attach to places on animals where there is less hair
The symptoms of a worm infestation depend on the type of worm, says Harry Chapman, “although GI worms are the commonest type of worm infestation in the UK. Owners may notice the following: vomiting, diarrhoea, lethargy, loss of appetite, poor condition or worms being passed out in the faeces.”
Other signs can include a dull coat and, in the case of puppies and kittens, a bloated stomach. Dog owners might notice their pet dragging its bottom across the floor, often referred to as ‘scooting’.
Factors such as the type and age of the animal also come into play, says Geoffrey Guyot. “Healthy adult cats and dogs usually don’t show any signs of worm infestation. There would be signs if the infestation is heavy or if the animal is elderly, young or has an underlying condition, but an adult dog might have worms and you wouldn’t see any signs – although they would still be shedding eggs and contaminating the environment.”
The fact owners might not notice outward signs of an infestation is why regular worming is so important, says Harry Chapman. “It is vital that pets are wormed at least every three months.”
The RSPCA recommends a regular worming programme that involves treating young pets against roundworm and treating adult pets against roundworm and tapeworm.
According to Public Health England, ticks are becoming much more widespread in many parts of England. “There are products available to help prevent dogs from picking up ticks,” says Caroline Reay.
“If you live in an area with ticks, it is a good idea to use a tick treatment that will either repel ticks or kill them if they attach. Spot-on treatments, tablets and collars are available, but advise customers to read the instructions very carefully as some treatments are for dogs only and can be very dangerous to cats and can even kill them.”
“Owners should check their pet’s coat every day if the pet has been out,” says Geoffrey Guyot. “Ticks are really hard to find, particularly when they first attach, as they are very small. More attention should be paid to around the face, ears, toes and tummy, as ticks prefer to attach to places where there is less hair. For the rest of the body, we advise people to stroke the pet all over, applying pressure.
“If they come across any bumps, they should part the fur and take a closer look. If ticks are found, a tick remover should be used.”
When it comes to getting rid of a flea infestation in the home, ‘slowly’ appears to be the consensus. “The first thing that pharmacists and their teams should say to pet owners is that whatever product they use, it is going to take a long time – at least three months and sometimes as many as six, depending on the burden in the house,” says Geoffrey Guyot. “Customers need to know that, so they can manage their expectations.”
He recommends a three-pronged approach. “The first step is to treat all pets, then to spray the house with a product containing an IGR [insect growth regulator: an ingredient used in anti-flea medicines], so it is effective against adult fleas, eggs and larvae. The third step is to remove as many fleas as possible by vacuuming, everyday if possible, and by washing the pet’s bedding.”
The commonest reasons why people fail to get rid of a flea infestation are because they don’t treat every room in the house with a flea spray, says Harry Chapman, and neither do they treat the animal long enough post-infestation.
Many pet owners won’t have even heard of lungworm – so it may not be on their radar as a potential threat. However, the lungworm parasite Angiostrongylus vasorum, which is now endemic in many parts of the UK, is dangerous. While dogs of any age or breed can become infected, the problem seems to be commoner in younger animals.
“This worm lives in the lungs of dogs, can be very serious and even kill,” says Caroline Reay. “It is picked up through contact with snails and slugs, and most dogs should be considered at risk. Although infection is more likely in southern areas of England and South Wales, cases are increasing in northern England and Scotland – so all owners across the country should be aware.”
It is vital that pets are wormed at least every three months
Two-fifths of UK households own a pet and they are increasingly on the lookout for convenient ways to access healthcare products and advice for their animals. So what can pharmacies do to drive home the message that they can act as a ‘one stop shop’ for the healthcare needs of families and their pets?
Bayer Animal Health’s Harry Chapman says it is all about trading on the great relation-ship they already have with their customers. “With so many UK households owning a cat or dog, a lot of owners will already have a great deal of trust in their local pharmacy because that is where they get their medications.”
Merial’s Geoffrey Guyot agrees, saying that pharmacy teams have an excellent back-ground in providing healthcare advice that they can draw on in pet care conversations. “They can give plenty of advice on how to prevent fleas, how to deal with infestations and how to protect from ticks.”
Another benefit is the convenience pharmacy offers, he says. “It can certainly make things more convenient for pet owners if they don’t have to get everything through a vet or pet shop, as often pharmacies are more conveniently located.”