Every year, fleas and ticks headline the pet news. In the vet news, it typically begins in April with stories on what to expect from this year’s parasite season. Which diseases to look out for, what kind of new bugs might be in our midst, where they might be headed. It reminds me of the hurricane season reports that hit the southeastern US at the start of the season. And the reports are never without some degree of hysteria.


So it was that when I heard an NPR segment about the media’s predilection for bedbug stories (on On the Media, a radio show that reports on media trends and news in the industry), I couldn’t help but compare it to our own industry’s annual flea and tick frenzy.


In this piece, a reporter for The Washington Post recaps his print story in which he discusses the phenomenon of bedbug reporting. It seems that news editors LOVE this topic. Even the stalwart New York Times got in on the inflammatory action, comparing bedbugs to a swarm of locusts(!).


Biblical plague and Dickensian references notwithstanding, it’s true that New York is seeing more bedbugs. But there are no firm statistics on this. The “squishy” stats often referenced in most bedbug stories are those of the pest control industry, which reports that calls for bedbug extermination are up significantly.


And that’s where I get to thinking about the vet industry and its similar fascination with stories on fleas and ticks. Just as with bedbugs, independent statistics are hard to come by. Are we really seeing resistance to our tried-and-true products (Advantage, Frontline, et. al.)? Are fleas and ticks crawling into drier Western terrain? Is global warming adversely affecting fleas and tick populations?


Who’s funding most studies? Take a wild guess.


It’s not as if these topics aren’t newsworthy and the information all bogus—quite the opposite. Bedbugs can be a calamitous household event, as hard to get rid of as any nasty parasite—even more so by some reports. Similarly, fleas and ticks are no laughing matter. Severe skin ailments and tick-borne diseases kill pets by the thousands every year.


But what’s the real incidence of disease? Is the vet industry overblowing the issue?


Anyone who’s has a serious infestation or who’s pet has been affected severely would quickly answer in the negative. It’s never wrong to get the word out. Let people know how bad it can be and let them decide.


For veterinarians, however, it’s more complicated than that. We need to know exactly what we’re up against. It’s not enough to know the worst-case scenario, it’s also critical to know what the real state of the problem is. Without that kind of information, were more likely to put our patients at unnecessary risk (albeit ever so slight in the case of most vet-only flea and tick meds) by recommending products they don’t need in the face of a non-existent crisis.


Stay tuned for tomorrow’s follow-up to this discussion. I’ve got more bugs up my sleeve.