Almost half of Britons own a pet and most of us take the job of taking care of their health seriously. However, there’s plenty of scope for educating pet-owning customers on how to prevent as well as treat common health problems

The UK is a nation of pet lovers, with a total of 13 million households owning a pet, which equals 45 per cent of all UK households. Where there are children in a household this figure rises to 53 per cent, says the Pet Food Manufacturers Association. And, according to PDSA, there are 11.1 million cats, 8.9 million dogs and one million rabbits owned in Britain. Birds, guinea pigs and hamsters are also popular choices.

In general, pet owners take the health of their furry friends seriously, but there is still plenty of room for education and improvement. Some 1.4 million dogs (16 per cent) are walked less than once a day and 40 per cent of owners don’t know their dog’s weight or body condition score. And, among cat owners, 65 per cent don’t know their pet’s weight or body condition score. 

When it comes to parasites, 16 per cent of dogs are not regularly wormed and 21 per cent not treated regularly for fleas, while 23 per cent of cats are not wormed and 19 per cent are not treated for fleas. So there is plenty that pharmacy teams can do to help furry friends, and their owners.

Pet welfare awareness

Over a third of pet owners are not familiar with the Animal Welfare Acts and 25 per cent have never heard of them, according to PDSA’s PAWS report 2018. The 2006 Animal Welfare Act places a legal duty of care on owners to provide for their pets’ welfare, including five needs. When asked about these, 74 per cent of owners said they were informed about all of them: 

  • To be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease
  • To live in a suitable environment
  • To have a suitable diet
  • To be able to exhibit normal behaviour patterns
  • To be housed with, or apart, from other animals.

“In our surveys we have found that owners who know the welfare needs of pets are more likely to care for their health properly than those who don’t,” says PDSA vet nurse Kristiana Shirley. “On our website we have a ‘which pet’ section which you can direct customers to educate them about the different health needs of pets.” 

Caring for pets in summer

Both cats and dogs can be affected by the heat, with risk of heat stroke in extreme cases. Here are some tips to pass on to pet-owning customers to help keep their animals cool:

  • A paddling pool in a shady spot will help to keep dogs cool as they release and absorb heat through their paws
  • Cooling mats for cats and dogs are good for lying on in the absence of cool floors for them to sleep on
  • Either wet a dog’s coat or drape a cool, wet towel over them to help lower their temperature quickly
  • Make ice cubes or lollies with a dog or cat’s favourite treats inside
  • Excess fur traps heat, so daily grooming will brush out dead hair to keep pets cool
  • Walk dogs sensibly. Choose cooler times of day and shady walks on hot days. As a rule, if a pavement is too hot for owners to touch, it’s too hot for their dog’s paws
  • Maintain a constant supply of fresh, cool water
  • Never leave a pet in a car on a warm day, even with windows open
  • Cats can get sunburnt, especially light coloured ones. Apply sunblock to ears, nose and areas with sparse fur on hot summer days.

Preventing and treating parasites

Fleas will affect most cats and dogs at some point, often during spring and summer. However, a recent survey by Bayer revealed that 45 per cent of owners are unable to detect signs of a parasite infection in their cat. The research also found that nine out of 10 cat owners could not recognise signs such as depressive behaviour or lack of appetite as possible indicators of an infection.

“Explain to customers the benefits for pets’ health and the family home. A flea infestation can cause lots of health problems for animals and is hard to get rid of from your home too. It’s much easier – and cheaper – to prevent them with regular treatments,” says Kristiana. “If a pet has fleas, it’s best to treat them for tapeworm too as they can get this from swallowing an infected flea.”

Fleas

Fleas start feeding on a pet’s blood in five minutes and can mate after eight hours. Females lay up to 50 eggs a day with eggs falling onto carpets and furniture where they can survive for up to six months before hatching into larvae. Many owners make the mistake of only treating their pet, not their home, which is often the reason for reinfestation. According to the RSPCA, 95 per cent of flea eggs, larvae and pupae live in the environment, not on the pet. As well as the home, customers may also need to treat garages, sheds and other places where the pet goes in order to kill all fleas and larvae. Thorough vacuuming followed by use of an insecticide spray will get rid of fleas in the home. 

Fleas are hard to spot unless a pet is heavily infested. Advise pet owners to check around the pet’s belly, tail base and neck. They may notice ‘flea dirt’, tiny black specks, which is faecal matter from fleas. They can check this by combing the pet’s coat and placing any black specks on a wet tissue – if a red halo forms around it, this is flea dirt.

Signs of a flea infestation in pets include:

  • Excessive grooming and scratching
  • Areas of hair loss, bald or sore patches
  • Skin problems. Some cats develop an allergy to fleas and there may be crusty sores on the skin
  • Insect bites on owners
  • Lethargic pet.

An infestation can cause anaemia as the pet loses a lot of blood to the parasites, and this can be fatal, especially in kittens and puppies, says the Blue Cross.

There are many different types of flea treatments for cats and dogs, but spot-on treatments and tablets or injections are the only effective long-term methods of flea control:

  • Spot-on treatments: liquid is applied to the skin at the back of the neck. Some products kill adult fleas, others work by interrupting flea development, some do both
  • Tablets or injections: a good choice if it’s difficult to apply a spot-on treatment
  • Treatment combs: these are useful for detecting fleas, but not treating them
  • Flea powders: not a long-term solution. They are only effective while they remain on the pet’s coat and only kill adult fleas.

Obesity in pets

Just as with humans, obesity is a real and growing threat to the health of pets. Some 50 per cent of vets surveyed by PDSA predict obesity will have the biggest health and welfare implications in 10 years’ time. And vets and vet nurses estimate that 46 per cent of dogs they see in their practice each week are overweight or obese, with 40 per cent saying this has increased in the last two years.

Some 16 per cent of dogs are walked less than once a day, and while 80 per cent of owners say their dog is an ideal weight, 40 per cent don’t know its weight or body condition score. “The fact that so many owners don’t know their pet’s weight or body condition score contributes to obesity. If not picked up early it can cause arthritis and diabetes,” says Kristiana Shirley, PDSA vet nurse. “Emphasise the benefits of regular dog walking to your customers for their own health as well as their dog’s.”

As well as lack of exercise, giving treats is a contributing factor. Some 91 per cent of owners give treats to their dog and 81 per cent to their cat. “Lots of owners give their pets human food. What we consider a small treat for us translates into many more calories for a pet. Healthy treats for dogs are carrot sticks or cucumber,” says Kristiana.

Worms in dogs

There are four types of intestinal worms that affect dogs in the UK. The most serious is roundworm, but hookworms, whipworm and tapeworms are also found: 

  • Roundworm larvae infect a dog’s intestinal tract and can then burrow into other tissues and organs
  • Hookworms are blood-sucking parasites and can be fatal
    to puppies as they leach nutrients from the dog
  • Whipworms live in the large intestine and rarely cause symptoms
  • Tapeworms live in the small intestine and absorb nutrients from food as it’s digested. They don’t usually harm the dog
  • Lungworm is also becoming more common in the UK. It lives in the lung blood vessels or heart of the dog. Not all worming treatments include lungworm, so check first before recommending a treatment.

Dogs can become infected by contaminated soil or if the worm is passed on from their mother. Left untreated, worms can cause serious health problems, such as nutrient deficiencies or life-threatening blockage of intestines.

It’s important to treat pets for worms not only for their health but for humans’ health too. Some worms can be passed on to humans and are especially dangerous to children and pregnant women. Regular worming treatment is important for all dogs, as it’s difficult to prevent reinfection. It should be done at least twice yearly. A range of worming treatments is available OTC to recommend. 

Worms in cats

Tapeworms and roundworms are the most common worms to affect cats. Tapeworms are long, flat worms, while roundworms are short with rounded bodies. Roundworms produce tiny eggs shed in faeces of the cat, while tapeworms release mature segments from the end of the worm into faeces, which look like grains of rice.

Roundworms can be picked up from rodents or the faeces of other cats. Tapeworms are passed on by ingesting infected fleas during grooming. Most cats with fleas will also have tapeworms.

The best way to protect cats is with a regular worming treatment, every two to six months. Recommend a product that works against roundworms and tapeworms. 

Ticks

Ticks are spider-like, egg-shaped insects that can cause diseases by transmitting bacteria and microbes when they bite an animal or human. Commonly found in long grass, woodland and heath land, they can affect dogs and cats, with dogs much more at risk.

Ticks are quite easy to spot on a pet’s coat and feel like a small lump under their skin. They usually attach themselves to a pet’s head, neck, ears or feet.

The best way to remove a tick from a pet is with a tick removal device, which takes it out safely. Never squeeze a tick as this expels blood into the pet, increasing risk of infections such as Lyme disease.

Household risks

Smoking

Just as passive smoking can cause fatal illnesses in humans, the same is true if animals are exposed to smoke. The PDSA has launched a campaign to raise awareness of the dangers: dogs are more prone to smoking-related breathing problems while cats are more likely to develop mouth cancer. Smoking indoors also harms small pets such as hamsters and birds. Customers should be advised to smoke outside and away from their pets.

Household medicines

OTC medicines such as ibuprofen and paracetamol can be fatal to pets if accidentally swallowed. These drugs cause several pet deaths each year, says the PDSA. “Drugs such as ibuprofen and paracetamol should be stored in the same way you would if you had young children, as they can be just as dangerous to our pets,” says Kristiana Shirley, PDSA vet nurse.

What’s more, warn customers about the danger of medicating pets with human medicines. They should only be given medicines prescribed by a vet.

Xylitol

Xylitol is a common sugar substitute used in vitamin supplements, chewing gum and toothpaste. An increasing number of xylitol poisoning cases are being reported in dogs, usually caused by dogs consuming chewing gum.

Customers should take care not to leave packs of gum around where a dog could reach it. Just one stick of gum is enough to make a dog seriously ill. Xylitol can cause hypoglycaemia and liver failure.

What we consider a small treat for us translates into many more calories for a pet

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