Pets have many advantages, but problems caused by fleas and ticks should not be underestimated. Pharmacy has a role to play in advising owners about how to prevent and treat infestations
With some 13 million households owning a pet â€“ according to figures from NOAH, the body which represents companies that research, develop, manufacture and market animal medicines in the UK â€“ thatâ€™s a lot of pet owners coming through the doors of pharmacies every day. Many pet owners may not realise that pharmacy staff can help when it comes to advice about common pet health problems, so are you doing enough to engage with this often untapped market?
â€œPharmacy teams are ideally placed to advise pet owners on how to prevent, detect and treat parasitic infections including fleas, ticks and worms,â€ says Alison Glennon, communications manager at NOAH, â€œand in fact nearly all pets will suffer from a flea infestation at some point in their lives.â€ With a lifespan of a few months, adult fleas are found in an animalâ€™s coat. Female fleas lay up to 50 eggs a day, which drop onto the floor, soft furnishings and bedding as the animal wanders around the house.
Larvae hatch after a few days and produce pupae, which house the developing flea. When fleas are fully grown, they wait until a suitable host such as a dog or cat is nearby and jump on, but the fleas that people see on their pets are only the tip of the iceberg: 95 per cent of the problem exists as eggs, larvae and pupae in the home.
The symptoms of fleas in pets can vary from no visible signs to severe itching, which may involve scratching or chewing the lower back or tail-base. Close inspection can reveal either small black insects or small black flea faeces.
If the infestation is very severe, it can result in serious blood loss, causing anaemia, which can even kill a puppy or a kitten. In pets affected with flea allergic dermatitis (FAD), the itching and self-inflicted trauma that results from flea bites may be particularly severe.
Ticks and worms
â€œItâ€™s important to check pets regularly for ticks as they can transmit disease to both animals and humans, and Lyme Disease is of particular concern in the UK and Ireland,â€ says Simone Pomerantz, Frontline Spot On vet at Merial. Un-fed ticks are the size of a sesame seed, but once engorged, they are similar in size and shape to a coffee bean. They can be removed by using a tick hook, and if the owner has any concerns about how to do this then pharmacy staff can demonstrate, or refer them to a vet.
When it comes to worms, healthy dogs often donâ€™t have external signs, but may still be infested and shed eggs into the environment, making regular treatment important. In addition, whether itâ€™s a cat using a litter tray or a dog using the garden, it is important to clean up faeces as soon as possible to reduce the chance of transmitting worms to other pets. Worms also pose a risk to humans, so hands should always be washed immediately after cleaning up faeces.
Treatment and prevention
Pharmacies can stock a variety of products including collars, tablets, sprays and spot-on treatments to help treat pets infested with fleas and worms, and to prevent infestation. For effective control, itâ€™s important to recommend treating all pets in the home as well as using preparations that will target developing fleas in the home.
However, Alison stresses: â€œParamount in relation to flea treatment is only to give a pet a product that is authorised for its particular species. Products suitable for one species may not be suitable for another â€“ for example, some dog flea treatments contain permethrin, an insecticide that is safe for dogs but highly toxic to cats, so advise your customers to use the product as directed on the packet.â€
Because flea eggs and larvae can live in soft furnishings around the home and some products only deal with adult fleas, itâ€™s important to break the flea life cycle. â€œThe first step is to treat all cats and dogs in the householdÂ and continue with monthly treatment all year round to ensure continuous flea and tick protection,â€ says Simone. â€œEncourage the pupae to hatch into fleas by regularly boiling kettles in all rooms and turning on your heating to increase the warmth and humidity in your home.â€
â€œThe second step is to regularly vacuum carpets and wash pet bedding every few weeks at 60Â°C. The third step is to use an environmental spray that contains an insect growth regulator. The final step is to allow treated pets access to all areas â€“ this ensures that when fleas hatch out they will jump onto pets and be killed by the treatment.â€ It can take three months or more for an infestation to resolve as it takes this long for all the pupae to hatch.
There are specific sprays available to treat the house, but customers should follow instructions carefully as they can be harmful to pets if they are not kept out of the way during treatment. For particularly heavy infestations, it may be necessary to call the local council to assist with the treatment.
Fleas are a year round problem, thanks to milder winters and warmer homes. Even if a pet doesnâ€™t go outside, flea eggs and larvae can still easily be brought into the home on clothing and shoes, so regular preventative treatment is the best way to avoid an infestation. â€œThe biggest cause of a flea problem is that pet owners can get lax about treating their animals and not treat at required intervals, or not use treatments as directed,â€ says Alison.
â€œThere is a tendency for an â€˜out of sight, out of mindâ€™ mentality â€“ forgetting to treat if there are no signs of scratching. Pharmacy staff can recommend that customers mark on a calendar, or set up an alert on their phone, when the next day to prevent fleas or worms is due.â€
Lungworm is a parasitic worm that can cause weight loss, breathing problems, a chronic cough and difficulty exercising in dogs, and can even be fatal. Transmitted by infected slugs or snails that carry the parasite, it can also be contracted when a dog drinks from puddles or uses toys or bowls that have been left outside, or if they eat infected fox or dog faeces.
â€œThe parasite may have become more prevalent due to our warmer and more humid summers, which has caused the slug and snail populations to increase,â€ says PDSA vet nurse Amanda Wilding. â€œAlthough it has been present in parts of the UK for a long time, it seems to be spreading and there have been outbreaks in previously unaffected areas. In a survey of 150 veterinary practices across the UK, a total of 952 suspected cases were reported (157 laboratory confirmed), with 81 deaths thought to have been caused by the parasite.â€
According to the Blue Cross, diagnosing lungworm can be difficult because symptoms vary, but vets can examine a sample of the dogâ€™s faeces under a microscope to help diagnose lungworm. However, this isnâ€™t 100 per cent reliable as lungworms arenâ€™t always present in every sample. Dogs canâ€™t pass the disease directly to one another, but theyÂ do pass the larvae in their waste. This then infects more slugs and snails which are eaten by other dogs, so the disease can rapidly spread within dog communities.
Advise your customers to be extra vigilant if they spot slugs and snails in their gardens or local parks and always to consult their vet as soon as possible if their dog becomes unwell.
Healthy pets have many benefits for society and can even help save the NHS money. For instance, pet owners make fewer visits to the doctor; pets help reduce their ownersâ€™ blood pressure, heart rates and stress; and pets also help increase owner activity levels.
However, there is still a need to educate customers that they can access pet medicines and advice from pharmacy and not only through their traditional supply route of vets and pet shops. So making your pet-owning customers aware that pharmacy is a useful resource for pet health advice is a vital public health service as well as being good for business.
Making the most of the category
â€œGiven that UK households own approximately eight million dogs and eight million cats â€“ almost one in every two households â€“ this is an untapped opportunity for pharmacy,â€ says Mimi Lau, Numarkâ€™s director of pharmacy services. â€œInterestingly, the multiples have been faster to identify the income potential and independents should really take note.â€
To create interest within the pharmacy, a stand is useful for both visibility of the category and self-selection of products. Customers need to know that you stock pet products and you should make use of any point of sale materials supplied by manufacturers. â€œYou might also want to consider stocking other pet items such as leads and collars and offering pet insurance,â€ adds Mimi, â€œalthough there is little evidence to suggest that retailers should expand pet meds ranges beyond cat and dog treatments, unless location or customer base indicates otherwise.â€
Nonetheless, Dr Steven Kayne, director of the Veterinary Pharmacy Education Programme, a suite of qualifications for pharmacists and support staff offered by Harper Adams University, believes veterinary medicines are a valuable market and one that community pharmacy can be usefully involved in. â€œThe number of people who consider pharmacy for vet medicines is still small but developing â€“ thanks to the veterinary medicines regulations that came into force in 2005 and helped shift some emphasis back towards pharmacy again â€“ so this remains an area that can be exploited,â€ he says.
â€œThe majority of pharmacies probably choose to focus on the companion animals and equine market sector, which can itself be split into four sub areas â€“ public health; the dispensing and supply of veterinary medicine; animal welfare, and miscellaneous, such as food, chews, toys, leads and so on. â€œCommunity pharmacy can be active in all of these and probably the public health one is the most important as pharmacy often has to deal with some of the disadvantages of animal contact with humans.
Vets seldom enquire if, for example, a catâ€™s flea problem has caused any symptoms in the owner, and GPs wonâ€™t often ask if a patientâ€™s flea bite allergy has been treated at source in their pet. Whereas pharmacists sit in both camps and can offer advice in both human and animal health â€“ a valuable contribution to public health.â€
Â Further resources
- The Veterinary Pharmacy Associationâ€™s What you should know aboutâ€¦ Selling veterinary medicines (River Clyde Books 2014)
- Details of courses for support staff and pharmacists from theÂ Veterinary Pharmacy Education Programme
- NOAHâ€™s Pet Health Information website â€“ provides independent advice for pet owners and aims to get them talking to pet health professionals, including pharmacists. NOAH provides free contact cards and display material to pharmacies to raise customer awareness of this site.
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Nearly all pets will suffer from a flea infestation at some point in their lives