Pet owners with compromised immune systems forced to shield from Covid-19 under government guidelines are exposing themselves to harmful flea bites this summer because one in three have missed treating their pets in March, April and May.
According to a UK study of 1,000 cat and dog owners with conditions that reduce their ability to fight infection, 72 per cent of respondents have admitted to missing at least one flea treatment since March.
Pet owners with weakened immune systems can have fatal complications to blood borne infections from parasites such as fleas – yet almost one in five [17%] with a cat or dog are unaware of this.
This lack of awareness rises to one in three [34%] in the over 55s.
62 per cent also don’t know that fleas can cause tapeworms in humans, according to the research from pet wellbeing firm, ITCHpet.com.
Another 17 per cent have never heard of fleas carrying bacteria Bartonella, which causes Cat Scratch Disease, which can be dangerous to those who are immunocompromised.
The findings come as experts are predicting an invasion of the pesky parasites this summer due to a worrying cocktail of humid weather, heavy rains and missed preventative treatments recently.
As a result, they are warning that parasites pose a threat to the nation’s immunosuppressed more than ever this summer.
Zoe Costigan – resident vet at ITCHpet.com, said: “Nationally, our research tells us that one in ten owners of cats and dogs found it more difficult to treat their pets for parasites during Covid-19.
“Concerningly, this figure jumped to 41 per cent when we delved more closely into the habits of pet owners whose immune defences are more fragile.”
Nearly a half [45%] of respondents said they did not feel comfortable or safe going out to the shop or vets to purchase treatment during lockdown.
For those who went without treating their pet during lockdown, over a quarter [26%] were under the impression that their pet didn’t need it as they were self-isolating.
“As fleas can also harbour in the home, it’s important to continue regular preventative treatment for your pets.” continued Costigan.
“Also, because fleas have four main stages in their life cycle – adult, egg, larva, and pupa – the total flea life cycle can range from a couple weeks to several months, depending on environmental conditions, so missing the odd treatment really does matter.”
The study also uncovered nearly half [48%] of immunocompromised pet owners consider their pets’ health first and foremost, without pausing to consider the health risks posed to them by parasites.
One in six [16%] said they were not even aware that fleas could pose a health risk to humans.
Over half [53%] were also unaware high temperatures teamed with rain can create an ideal breeding ground for fleas.
“‘Diseases transmitted from fleas can include the likes of tapeworms – parasitic worms which can infect humans and migrate from the gut to cause cysts in other organs” explained Zoe Costigan.
“Worse still, fleas can also pass on bloodborne infections to humans. And for those who are immunocompromised or elderly, they are at much higher risk of having severe complications.”
“When a person has a weakened immune system, or immunosuppressed as it can also be referred to, it means their immune defences are weaker.”
“When defences are lower, a person becomes much more susceptible to infection.
“The Big Flea Project published in 2019 which looks into the types of bacteria circulating in the UK flea population, showed 11 per cent of fleas submitted tested positive for Bartonella – a nasty bacteria which causes Cat Scratch Fever. Rickettsia Felis; an emerging, insect-borne pathogen is also on the rise.
“An infected flea can prey on a cat, then all it takes is for the cat to scratch or bite a human to infect them.
“The nation’s cats and dogs have provided a great source of comfort during such troubling times.
“As the rules continue to relax and people start enjoying the outdoors more, now more than ever people need to be vigilant and ensure they are treating their pets properly for parasites – for everyone’s health.
“Worryingly, a quarter [25%] even confessed that they have not treated their pets for the past six months.”
“Pets need to be treated monthly for fleas and every three months for worms to prevent tapeworms.”
Many conditions and treatments can affect the body’s defence system (making a person “immunocompromised” or “immunosuppressed”) including cancer, diabetes, organ transplants, heart disease, lupus, lung disease, HIV, Aids, malnutrition.
Why are fleas a risk to humans if you have a weakened immune system?
Fleas can pass on blood borne infections which are potentially fatal in immunocompromised people. In the big flea project of 2018, 11% of fleas submitted tested positive for Bartonella; a bacteria which causes cat scratch fever.
What is cat scratch fever?
Cat scratch fever, also called cat scratch disease (CSD) or Bartonellosis, is a bacterial infection that affects humans and is contracted from a cat bite or scratch to the skin from a cat infected with Bartonella. It has been shown that infective flea dirt can infect people who have a defective skin barrier.
Who is at risk of cat scratch fever?
Those who own pet cats which are prone to biting or scratching the owner and which do not have a preventative treatment for fleas onboard are at risk and people with weakened immune systems have an increased risk of becoming seriously ill from cat scratch fever.
Symptoms from cat scratch fever can include swelling around the area where the skin was broken – with red, raised bumps – and even pus. Other symptoms include a high temperature/fever and headaches, also exhaustion and poor appetite. It’s also worth noting that lymph nodes near the area of broken skin can become swollen, painful or tender several days or even weeks following exposure. The blisters and swollen lymph nodes can take time to disappear
If you suspect you might have cat scratch fever it is advisable to contact your doctor. Cases can resolve on their own however in some cases – and for those with weakened immune systems – antibiotics will be prescribed as treatment.
What does immunocompromised mean?
To be immunocompromised means your immune system is weaker and the body is less able to defend itself. When defenses are lower, a person becomes much more susceptible to infection and they will be less able to fight that infection off.
This may be caused by certain diseases or conditions – including the likes of cancer, diabetes, HIV, AIDS, malnutrition, heart disease and lung disease. Also, autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. Immunosuppression can also be caused by treatments and medicines, such as radiation therapy, anticancer drugs, and stem cell, organ or bone marrow transplant.
It’s worth noting that aspects such as advanced age, poor nutrition and pregnancy can also cause immunocompromising.
How do I know if I’m immunocompromised?
For some, getting sick or feeling run down might seem to feel like a far too regular occurrence – and some might find they get sick for what feels like a long time. Getting sick more frequently and for longer periods of time can be a sign that you could be immunocompromised.
It is also important to note that some people who suffer from weakened immune systems might not experience normal signs of infection from a wound – such as pus, fever and swelling. In some severe cases for those who are immunocompromised, these signs might not show up at all.
If you suspect you might be immunocompromised, it’s recommended to speak to your doctor immediately.