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By now, the daylight should be creeping ahead of the darkness and with March around the corner, the prospect of spring is becoming a reality. The predictable cycle of our seasons provides the basis for the circle of life we experience here in the UK. With our part of the world turning again to the sun, the dormant starts to become active across the great spectrum of life on Earth.
So a great awakening is starting at all levels from bacteria and fungi, to plants, insects, gastropods (slugs and snails) and mammals. Although many of us may not want to influence this rising tide of life, the fact is that we often do, deliberately, with agricultural herbicides, fungicides and insecticides. Obviously, the reason these chemicals are used is not to decimate the natural world but to protect the animals and crops that form the basis of our food supply. Where the balance lies between these conflicting factors is clearly the subject of much on-going debate.
In the veterinary world, there is an equally active debate over very similar issues. The use of anti-bacterial drugs in animals has been a hot topic for a long time, especially for those antibiotics that are most useful in human medicine. The crux of this argument is bacterial resistance develops the more antibiotics are used, to the point where many are now ineffective. So, the more they are used in animals, the more resistance there is out there to make human (and animal) treatment more difficult. This is not a straightforward subject as many of the most serious infections are caused by bacteria that are naturally resistant to most penicillins, due to the structure of their cell walls (we call these Gram negative bacteria). The good news, we have a range of non-penicillin antibiotics that are effective against Gram negative bugs; the bad news is, these bacteria are even better at drug resistance! In short, clinicians in both the human and veterinary world are keen to limit the use of antibiotics to protect our precious drugs from becoming obsolete. The most effective way of doing this is to target antibiotics to specific bacterial infections known to be sensitive to that particular drug. Sounds ideal but it really isn’t that easy for many reasons, not least of which is bacterial infections do not come with a name-tag!
I could go on about bacteria, their contribution to our general health in the form of the vast population in our gut, the so-called microbiome and the damage we do to them through lifestyle and diet (and antibiotics!). But its time to move on to parasites, probably our biggest target for preventative medicine. This is where the agricultural and veterinary worlds are starting to meet and maybe not in a good way. The spring rise in parasites is well-known in agriculture and farm animals are treated regularly against worms, similar to our companion pets. Not so many years ago, we would recommend treating your dog and cat against worms just four times a year. Then along came a lungworm! Spread by slugs and snails in their slime trails, we used to see several cases every year in dogs, who, literally had worms in their lungs! In response to this new threat, we changed our recommended wormer to products containing “milbemycin” as many others are ineffective against lungworm. We also increased the number of times these preventative medicines are used as significant lungworm infections can develop within a couple of months.
How about external parasites? Will they be on the rise this spring? For ticks, the answer is definitely yes as they like warm and wet, although parts of our winters can be spring-like so don’t take anything for granted. Nothing will prevent a tick from biting but approved products can kill it within hours, reducing the chances of disease transmission (Lyme and Tick-born encephalitis). Historically, we have used spot-on and tablet forms of the most effective drugs to protect against ticks but recent environmental data has shown a worrying trend. Some of the insecticides used against ticks and fleas are being detected in ecosystems across the UK, where their effect on insect life is likely to be harmful. For this reason, we now recommend using tablets rather than spot-ons for dogs, especially those likely to enter water courses. If just a trace of the active ingredient is washed off your dog’s coat and into a stream, the effect on insect life could be devastating. With enough environmental pressure from agricultural insecticides already, the last thing our natural world needs is adding to it.
So the next time you visit your vet, have a chat about the products that suit your pet with the environment in mind. Correct dosing for body weight and use at appropriate times can focus our protection against parasites while at the same time helping the tide of life to rise again this spring.