Tackle tough tick talks with veterinary clients


Veterinary clients are often in the dark about the risk ticks present for their pets. Use these tips to tackle tough tick talks, region by region.

Sometimes clients fail to take ticks seriously—and the consequences can be serious for both pets and people. As you know, Lyme disease is the most commonly reported vector-borne illness in the United States. And reducing exposure to ticks is the best defense against Lyme disease and other tick-borne infections, such as anaplasmosis, ehrlichiosis, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Your veterinary team probably knows the danger that ticks present to pets," says Ciera Sallese, CVT, a technician at Metzger Animal Hospital in State College, Pa. "But it's important for each of us to remember that the diseases that we're so familiar with may be completely foreign to the owners of affected pets. Often, the only chance we get to talk about prevention is when pet owners visit for an annual exam. So it's important to use this time wisely and highlight key facts about tick-borne diseases."

For example, she says team members should highlight the vector-borne diseases that are most common in their area, stressing preventives and regular inspections to protect pets against disease. And Sallese says it's also important to explain to clients that, even with a perfect prevention protocol, just one tick can spread a disease. So routine testing can either assure pet owners that their pet has been successfully protected or it can help diagnose a disease, so the veterinarian can offer treatment.

Let's examine some tick tips and communication strategies, region by region.

The Northeast and upper Midwest

Lyme disease can be found in every state in the United States and Canadian provinces. However, it's most prevalent in the northeast, from Pennsylvania to Massachusetts, and the upper Midwest, in Wisconsin and Minnesota. The black-legged tick, commonly called the deer tick, resides in grassy meadows, young forests, and along roadways and trails.

"While many people question whether tick prevention is needed year-round, it's important to recommend continuous use," Sallese says. "In my area, the prevalence of Lyme disease is so great that the consistent use of topical tick prevention, along with a Lyme disease vaccination, is recommended for most pets."

While most owners think topical prevention is a cure-all, Sallese says it's important to remind them to exercise other tick prevention, including inspecting, watching for signs of tick-borne diseases, and routine disease screenings.

So how do you spread your message of tick prevention and awareness to clients? The preventives veterinarians sell are all effective, trusted sources of tick prevention, and many come with a brochure, which can serve as a great starter for communication. Sallese says these brochures work great to teach owners about the products available and stress the importance of their use.

Sallese says her team also hands out tick cards, courtesy of the American Lyme Disease Foundation (aldf.com). "These tick cards show clients different types and sizes of ticks, and they offer tips on how to avoid ticks," she says.

The Southeast

The Lone Star tick is the most common in the southeast. It can also be found in grassy meadows and woodland. Other species of ticks found in the lower portion of the country hide out in warm, subtropical climates in shaded, sandy areas.

"Most of our clients' pets are house puppies heading out to manicured lawns," says Julie Mullins, staff training coordinator at Seaside Animal Care in Calabash, N.C. "So their risk factors are low." However, team members always ask whether pets venture into wooded or grassy areas to identify the pet's risk. Her team also uses the printed material from preventives to educate clients.

"We teach clients who use preventives to apply it monthly on the skin," she says.

The West

The west, minus the coast, may have the least to worry about when it comes to ticks. However, it's important to remind clients that pets should still be protected, as species like the Rocky Mountain wood tick and the American dog tick are found throughout the region. And the Western black-legged tick is found on the Pacific coast. Ticks throughout the west hide in grassy areas or woodland and warm, sandy areas. They also live in hot, drier range areas, rocky habitats, or animal shelters in the south.

Carrie Murry, practice manager at Lone Peak Veterinary Hospital in Draper, Utah, says that her team members start the tick conversation by asking questions, such as whether clients are planning to travel with their animals or if they have any specific concerns. She says her team members focus on prevention, educating clients, and offering preventives case-by-case, based on the animal's risk.

"We sell preventives for pets every day," she says. "If people hike a lot or go into wooded areas, we recommend a good once-over with fingers and eyes."

Best practices

It's a good idea to start improving your clients' tick awareness by recommending a parasitic disease screening at each annual checkup. "Owners who feel their area isn't affected by ticks should still monitor their pets for ticks and symptoms of illnesses," Sallese says. "Tick-borne diseases are slowly migrating. Annual disease screening helps protect pets and provides an accurate record of incidence in the area."

For team members, client communication is essential. Sallese recommends using attention-grabbing phrases, such as, "Tick-borne diseases are typically easier to prevent than to treat." Mullins suggests using buzzwords, such as exposure and disease transmission, to make a strong impact.

The bottom line: Ticks are a threat in every area of the country. "Clients are the voice for their pets," Sallese says. "So we need to teach them how to best protect pets."

Brianne Carlon is an Ohio-based freelance writer. Please send questions or comments to firstline@advanstar.com.

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