As a vet active in the media, I have a second part-time voluntary job: answering people's queries online. I have a busy Facebook page ("Pete the Vet") where I post interesting snippets and links about pet health and disease.
A steady flow of pet owners contact me via my page, asking me questions about their pets. I do my best to help as much as I can, often posting links to useful websites that contain detailed information that helps people. One of my key skills as a vet is the ability to tell "truth" from "fake news". I can easily point people towards websites that contain genuinely helpful, science-based information, and I can direct them away from websites that are opinions dressed up as facts.
Last week, a query came in that highlighted a good example of what can go wrong when people try to manage pet illness issues on their own, rather than working with professional help by going to their own vet.
Someone sent me a message saying: "My neighbour's cat has never been out, yet he got fleas. He has treated the cat with all the usual treatments but nothing seems to work".
I replied with some simple questions: what, exactly, were "all the usual treatments"? The response was a combination of a flea collar, a spot-on anti-flea product, and a spray for the house. He had bought them all in the pet section of a supermarket.
At first glance, this does sound like a reasonable combination of treatment for fleas, but I knew that something was amiss: how could there still be a flea problem? As is often the case, more details were needed.
I asked for the precise brand names of the products used, then I looked them up online, to find out what active ingredients they contained.
I was not surprised at the answers: none of the products contained substances that actually killed fleas. Instead, they all contained herb-based products that sound "natural" and "animal friendly", but in reality, they did not do what the cat owner needed: they did not kill fleas. The fine print explained that they "repel" fleas, which is very different to killing.
I always say to people that the best way to deal with flea problems is to go to your local vet: vets know about the life cycles of parasites, and they know which products are the safest and most effective at eradicating creepy crawlies. And we make sure that we stock the latest, most effective products that can be guaranteed to do the job in the easiest possible way.
Some people don't want to go to the vet, and I am sure there are many reasons for that, including fear that it may cost a lot (which is not always true, in fact) and difficulty in transporting their pet to the clinic. The problem with doing it yourself is that you can end up wasting more money than you save, and you waste a lot of time too, like the gentleman in my recent Facebook discussion.
The other advantage of going to the vet is that you'll be able to learn more about other aspects of the problem affecting your pet. For example, the Facebook man could not understand where on earth the fleas on his cat could have come from, since the cat never went outside. I was able to explain that another animal visiting his house a year earlier - such as a dog - could have had fleas, and these could have hopped off the dog into the carpet, laying eggs that could have then hatched out many months later. Once you understand the details of the flea life cycle, it's easy to determine how situations like this arise.
What sort of products is the vet likely to offer to solve flea problems?
A number of different formulations of flea control products are now available, including highly effective flea drops for the cat (no herbs included) that are proven to have a long lasting effect, actually killing fleas rather than just repelling them, and proven to be very safe. Additionally, they'd probably recommend a potent household spray that would not only kill any adult fleas lurking in the home, but would also leave a residue that would prevent flea eggs from hatching out (if a product like this is not used, a flea problem can be reactivated within days of spraying a house with a budget flea-killer spray, because these cheaper versions do not prevent flea eggs from developing into wriggling, hopping adult fleas).
In a recent survey by animal health company MSD, almost two thirds of Irish pet owners admitted to sometimes or often forgetting to give the regular treatment for fleas. This is an area that can definitely be helped by the newer, longer-acting anti-flea products. The easier it is to control fleas, the more likely people are to do it. If products can be applied less often yet are still be just as effective (e.g. every three months), the battle to control fleas is easier.
Flea control is not difficult to accomplish, but you do need to do it right. If you are concerned about a flea problem, you can try to do it yourself, but like my Facebook friend, it can be difficult to work it out. It's best to ask your local vet for help, and better again, ask your vet what's best to use on an ongoing basis, to prevent fleas.
Your aim should be that you are never again in the situation where your animal is carrying a bundle of creepy, crawling, hopping critters.