Tips for Using Vector-Borne Disease Data in Pet Owner Communications

As a veterinarian, you know that by performing vector-borne disease (VBD) testing at each wellness visit, more diseases can be detected—and treated—before significant problems develop for your patients. An annual screening with accurate, reliable tests can help you stay ahead of VBD. However, it can be tricky to get pet owners to agree to annual VBD screens if you aren't sure how to relay the importance.

This is especially true in areas where VBD is non-endemic or emerging because the conversation is relatively new and pet owner awareness around these diseases is less common. No matter what region you practice in, utilizing reliable data to communicate the importance of vector-borne disease screening to your clients is one of the best ways to explain the growing risks these pathogens pose to both animals and humans. When you discuss data with your clients, you can provide the proof they need to opt for VBD testing as part of their pet's annual wellness visit.

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Use the VBD Data At Your Fingertips

Simply telling a client that vector-borne disease is a risk to their pet doesn't necessarily put it into meaningful context and might not increase compliance with VBD testing. To persuade pet owners that VBD screening is an important piece of their pets' wellness plan, it can be helpful to relay specific information found in prevalence maps. This data is readily available and easy to access through the Companion Animal Parasite Council (CAPC).

As of June 2023, 1 in 30 (150,542 out of 3.9 million) dogs across the United States tested positive for Lyme disease. Additionally, 1 in 20 dogs tested positive for anaplasmosis, and 1 in 30 dogs tested positive for ehrlichiosis. All three of these diseases can have serious negative health effects, and treatment outcomes are better the sooner they're detected. Giving your clients a reference point and quantitative measurement to consider empowers pet owners to make data-driven decisions as they choose what to include in their pet's wellness screening plan.

Help Pet Owners Become Proactive vs. Reactive

Client objections can be stronger in areas that are non-endemic for certain diseases, such as Lyme or heartworm. In these cases, discussing pet parasite forecast data may be a better option to bolster arguments for the inclusion of VBD testing in their pet's annual wellness screens. The forecast data provides a peek into the future for pet owners, showing them that while a disease may not be prevalent right now, it could certainly become an issue for their pets.

According to the CAPC, "risks have increased due to rehoming of pets, changes in distribution and prevalence of vector populations, habitat changes, changes in wildlife populations and increased interactions with them in newly developed and reclaimed areas, and the short and long-term changes in climatic conditions." Simply put, vectors and animals aren't staying in one place. Due to the increased mobility of both, along with environmental factors, VBD testing has become relevant in all regions—not just those that have historically been considered endemic. When communicating the geographic shift of VBD and the increased risk to pets, showing clients the forecast maps can have a huge impact on how they interpret the data and decide whether to include VBD screening as part of their pet's annual wellness plan.

Vectors Are Shifting and So Is the Distribution of Disease

Talking about climate change and vector-borne disease testing can be intimidating, but it's worth it to protect your clients. Climate patterns and extreme weather events have directly and indirectly increased the risk of exposure to VBD for both people and animals. Clients want the best for their pets and for their human families. Let clients know that annual VBD screening can contribute to the pool of data and the process of protecting both animal and human populations from disease.

In a recent article, Dr. Erin Lashnits, an assistant professor in small-animal internal medicine at the University of Wisconsin whose current research focuses on the epidemiology of zoonotic vector-borne diseases says, "By increasing everyone's awareness of climate change and vector-borne diseases in the area, you can provide the best protection and treatment for both your patients and clients." Use this newfound awareness to persuade clients to include VBD tests as part of their pet's wellness plan.

The Next Step

Once you've shared the data and the pet owner has opted for testing, the next step is interpreting the results. You're not alone if you worry about what to do when one of your seemingly healthy patients tests positive for a vector-borne disease. But don't let that stop you from recommending VBD testing as part of annual health screens. There are plenty of resources that can make "what to do next" clearer. For example, using charts and algorithms and sharing helpful articles can make your life easier as you take the next steps for your patient.

Increasing compliance for VBD testing during regular wellness exams will keep your patients healthier and your clients happier. And, with the right data, your clients are armed with the information they need to make an informed decision about testing.

Nell Ostermeier

Dr. Ostermeier is an entrepreneur at heart and operates, a virtual practice providing telehealth and education for pet parents as well as consultations for veterinarians who wish to safely integrate holistic options into conventional medicine. She earned her DVM from the University of Illinois in 2004 and, since that time, has worked with multiple species and performed varied roles, including associate veterinarian, relief veterinarian, and practice owner. Dr. Ostermeier is an expert in integrative medicine and veterinary acupuncture, and she has spoken at conferences around the world. As an IDEXX regional thought leader, she supports veterinarians in promoting diagnostics as the basis for best preventive care and individualized treatment plans. The views and opinions in this piece are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of either The Vetiverse or IDEXX.

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