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How treatment for our beloved pets can harm vital ecosystem

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Making Space for Nature by Patricia Bremner

Patti Bremner, High Life Highland countryside ranger for East Caithness.
Patti Bremner, High Life Highland countryside ranger for East Caithness.

Not much beats a stroll through the countryside with our four-legged friends. Their enjoyment is almost palpable as they eagerly sniff their way alongside, learning who or what was there before them – and how long ago! It’s no wonder that we love them so dearly and do our best to keep them happy and healthy.

While out walking in the countryside our pets can be at risk from picking up unwanted parasites. Infestations of these can lead to health and welfare issues for our beloved pets, so it is important take action to prevent problems before they occur.

You may have noticed a change in the way veterinary practices dispense flea and worm products over the past year. This is in response to new prescribing guidelines from the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) largely due to concerns over how these products affect creatures living in our waterways.

Studies have shown that handwashing (following administration), dogs swimming or bathing, and washing of pet bedding allows the active ingredient in “spot-ons” and medicated collars to reach these fragile ecosystems in quantities that exceed toxic levels and can do so for the duration of action of the product.

Oral (tablet/liquid) flea and worm products present another issue as the active ingredients and metabolites are excreted, contaminating the wider environment if we are not careful to dispose of pet waste appropriately.

There are also potential issues with the treatments used for livestock and horses. Certain products recommend that animals be kept indoors for a specified period of time following treatment to reduce the risk of the excreted product reaching pastures.

The farming community know very well the benefits of these amazing invertebrates that we want to preserve. They break down dung and fertilize and aerate the soil, and in the case of dung beetles even reduce parasite burden on pastures.

Losing them to the effects of parasiticides shed in faeces is an unwanted side effect indeed. Fortunately, much is already being done to address these issues. Many universities and agencies are studying methods to reduce parasite burden using less chemicals, encouraging specific grazing strategies, faecal worm egg counts, grazing on plants with high tannin levels, and stockmanship observations – with a view to treating only affected individuals rather than blanket treatment, where appropriate.

Dung beetles are a vital part of the ecosystem.
Dung beetles are a vital part of the ecosystem.

As you can see it is a delicate balance between keeping ourselves, our pets, livestock and our ecosystem healthy. Hopefully with increasing awareness of the situation and further research in this area, we will be able to prevent further losses to the valuable ecosystem fauna of our waterways and pastures.

Your local vet practice, pet store or agricultural supplier should be able to advise anyone who has any concerns and point you in the direction of essential information and guidance.

Finally, while we are on the subject of dogs inparticular – can we take the opportunity to remind owners to keep their dogs on a lead or close to heel with many ground nesting birds trying to rear their chicks at this time of year.

Daily dog walks are good for our physical and mental health but remember even the most well-trained friendly dog can scare livestock and wildlife.

• Patricia Bremner is the new High Life Highland countryside ranger for East Caithness. She is based at the Seadrift Centre in Dunnet, working three days a week.

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