Fleas & Ticks — What’s New?

Despite the advancements in anti-flea and -tick products, vets are seeing more fleas and ticks.

Theories abound as to why clients report more flea and tick infestations despite the availability of the best preventive products the profession has ever seen.

Weather patterns, heightened owner awareness and neighborhood wildlife are the most likely reasons clients are slinging questions at veterinarians about ongoing flea and tick infestations and product efficacy, experts say.

Although a recent study fingers global warming as the reason ticks are causing more trouble for humans than in past years, the evident issue is clients’ expectations of flea and tick products. Veterinarians might not want to get tangled in the global warming debate, but it’s still necessary for them to educate clients on realistic expectations of the products they recommend.

“An overall sense of complacency has seeped into the profession and we’ve gotten away from educating clients,” says Michael Dryden, DVM, Ph.D., professor of veterinary parasitology at Kansas State University.

“We treat fleas and they go away, but these products don’t last forever. Treatment must be continued to get rid of the entire infestation. Fleas can lay 40 to 50 eggs a day, and they drop in the carpet and spread anywhere the pet goes. If owners could understand the miniature world of larva, pupa and adults inside their homes, they might step up to the plate and be more compliant with their treatment.”

Though flea-killing chemicals may vary from the active agents used to kill ticks, most products advertising that they eliminate fleas will stymie a tick infestation. This makes life simpler for the client and condenses veterinarians’ education session for clients.

Explaining to clients the effect of year-to-year weather changes on parasite populations—and the logic in consistently applying a monthly preventive—is part of the plan in helping clients make the right choices in flea and tick control.

“Weather patterns make all the difference,” says Michael Murray, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, technical marketing director for U.S. parasiticides at Merial Ltd. of Duluth, Ga.

Fleas in the Environment

“Owners who have pets with a flea or tick problem want to blame someone for the infestation. They have been using a product to handle the problem, but they sometimes find fleas are still around and they conclude the product isn’t working. Clients tend to have a perception that ‘poof!’—fleas miraculously go away, not realizing new fleas are emerging from the environment.

“There are many good products that take care of the problem, but the fleas didn’t hear about that and they re-emerge from non-host sites.”

Since veterinarians typically encounter the client and patient once an animal has fleas, being prepared to educate clients about why they see a flea or tick after treatment with a veterinary-recommended agent is a starting point, some practitioners say. Clients may not understand the life cycle of the parasites and expect a monthly topical to be the cure-all.

“Manufacturers continue to study products for effectiveness, and findings show that they are as effective today as they were when they were placed on the market more than a decade ago,” says Joe Hostetler, DVM, manager of veterinary technical services for Bayer Animal Health of Shawnee, Kan. “There is no product that will instantly kill every flea.”

The Life Cycle

Environmental experts say warm seasons are lasting longer, giving Northern states a greater problem with fleas. It used to be that many states were too cold for fleas or, at least, they disappeared in the wintertime. But veterinarians now should be recommending year-round flea and tick control in all regions, experts say, to keep the parasitic infestations in check.

More than 90 percent of fleas live and die in the environment of a pet or other animal, rather than on the pet itself.

“There’s a lack of client awareness as to fleas’ and ticks’ ability to live off the pet,” says Christine Rees, DVM, Dipl. ACVD, of San Antonio Veterinary Referral Specialists. “They also underestimate the zoonotic disease potential of letting these infestations go untreated. Since the products veterinarians would recommend are safe according to the Food and Drug Administration or the Environmental Protection Agency, that might be another point to make right off the bat.”

Core Part of Care

The economic downturn has many people redirecting their spending. Although veterinarians haven’t reported a significant overall decrease in revenue for 2008, the issue may persist throughout 2009 as to how to persuade clients to invest in products they may not see an immediate need for.

“As a profession, we don’t always think of flea and tick control as medicine,” K-State’s Dr. Dryden says. “We need to let owners know parasite prevention is a core part of general pet care.”

In addition to preventing the parasites themselves, Dr. Rees says dogs on consistent flea preventives have far less incidence of flea allergies than those who are intermittently treated with monthly topicals. Owners of allergy-prone animals should be made aware of  the potential elimination of secondary bacterial infections and allergic reactions in animals with flea allergies when they comply with the recommended monthly applications.

Mosquito Allergy

In the parasite lineup, fleas tend to get clients’ attention fastest, experts say, but ticks have a greater yuck factor. Since mosquitoes don’t live on pets, they may be the most obscure of all problem-causing bugs.

“Clients tend to boo-hoo about fleas, but ticks and mosquitoes tend to be a secondary concern,” Rees says. “I recently discovered that mosquito allergies can be a problem for pets. A canine patient of mine was developing hives from mosquito bites and other allergic symptoms, and after running some test I ruled out other sources. Cases like this are a good argument to giving your pet not only heartworm preventive, but a product with mosquito repellent built in.”

With such a vast array of products to choose from, another question often faces veterinarians: Which ones are right? You can’t carry everything from an economic standpoint, and clients would question why you need multiple brands.

“Clients will inevitably ask what’s wrong with Product A, since you now have products A, B and C that perform the same end result,” says Sam Reichman, DVM, of Flat Creek Animal Clinic in Fayetteville, Ga. “There’s a happy medium of what to stock and there are a few things to consider to determine what will serve your particular set of clients best.”

“Determine the foundation parasite that is most concerning to you and your clients and make your initial drug choices from this,” Dryden says. “Perhaps you need a multipronged approach, and also stress that mosquito preventives aren’t a replacement to heartworm preventive.”

“There are almost too many options in flea and tick control,” Dr. Reichman says. “When deciding what products to carry in your practice and what to recommend, consider your client’s biggest concern and what the greatest threat is in your area. Instead of getting the pet to fit a product, find the right product to fit the pet. Perform a Q and A on risks and concerns instead of plugging the pet into one product base.”

Tick Migration Study Draws Scrutiny

Research by Didier Raoult, MD, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Marseille School of Medicine in France, suggests that as the world warms, ticks may be more likely to bite humans, increasing the incidence of tick-borne diseases.

Dr. Raoult’s research was spurred by observing cases in which people suffered a high number of simultaneous tick bites. Raoult and colleagues studied brown dog ticks and set out to determine whether temperature affected the arachnids’ behavior.

Raoult and colleagues incubated 500 ticks at 77 degrees Fahrenheit and 500 at 104 degrees Using themselves as test subjects, they found that after one hour, half the ticks in the 104-degree environment had burrowed into the skin, while none incubated at 77 degrees had burrowed.

Raoult theorized that thirst drove the ticks in the warmer environment to act faster to achieve a blood meal.

Some experts discredit Raoult’s findings, noting that the vast temperature difference in the experiment was far greater than in a real-life setting. They say factors in addition to temperature play a role in circumstances in which ticks choose a human host as opposed to their more common animal sources.

“We’re seeing Lone Star ticks in Michigan now, where it was originally a Texas tick,” says Joe Hostetler, DVM, manager of veterinary technical services at Bayer Animal Health of Shawnee, Kan.

“This is likely because of wildlife transferring the parasite around—and traveling pets. But the concern over whether ticks in general are going to bite people more is really speculation.

“What veterinarians can do and what owners can follow through on is making sure the animals are treated and the same environmental treatment methods used in the past are employed. The best advice is: Take action on the things that we can control as veterinarians.” 

— JT

Which Products to Carry?

Veterinarians may have old, faithful products, but the allure of new ones is sometimes difficult to ignore. New research and a different approach to handling parasites is tempting, experts say, but keep several factors in mind when deciding which products to have in the clinic.

Is Lyme disease a concern?

Are flea infestations an issue?

Is heartworm the focus?

Do clients travel frequently with the pet?

Are clients concerned with internal parasites?

Does the product do what it claims?

What are your experiences with the product?

What do you use on your pets?


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