Pharmacy: Care in the animal community

High-street pharmacists can now sell over-the-counter remedies for pets as well as for people, says Virginia Matthews

James Herriot may not have approved of pet-owners buying their flea powders and doggy toothpaste at the same time as hairdye and headache pills, but following last year's loosening up of animal medicines sales, the era of the veterinary pharmacist is approaching fast.

Three months after the Office of Fair Trading ruled that worm tablets, tic sprays and animal vitamins should be available via supermarkets and pharmacies as well as vets, the nation's coughing collies, depressed dobermans and bilious budgies are preparing to take full advantage of the no-appointment-necessary philosophy of our 12,500 community pharmacies.

With Britain now supporting 7.7 million cats, 6.5 million dogs, 750,000 pet horses, 10 million racing and show pigeons and more than two million small pets such as guinea pigs, hamsters and ferrets, it is estimated by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain (RPSGB) that more than half of all human visitors to a pharmacy have a four-legged or feathered friend waiting at home.

In contrast to their role in human medicine, pharmacists are not allowed to diagnose an animal's ailments. However, they are now permitted to sell a range of over-the-counter remedies - either in shops or via the web, for everyday pet problems such as canker, dandruff or vomiting.

Medicines for food-producing animals, including horses, will not be made available over the counter for reasons of human health.

The prices of those pharmacies that do decide to stock animal medicines - around 1,000 at the moment - are expected to be considerably lower than those of vets.

Pharmacies can issue and fill veterinary prescriptions, either their own or scripts from vets, for the regulated drugs that are used to treat rheumatism or diabetes, and are available to offer advice on anything from excessive barking to bird flu.

Although this new expanded role in animal health is causing understandable angst among vets - some of whom are reportedly flouting the new rules by refusing to issue free prescriptions to clients - Andrew Evans, superintendent pharmacist at the 44-store Manor Pharmacies chain in the East Midlands, believes that this is short-sighted.

"At present, only 40 per cent of pet-owners take their animal to the vet because they believe their fees to be exorbitant," he says, "which is ironic given that most vets try and peg their consultation fees while putting most of their charges on medicines."

"Although we are forbidden from diagnosing what's wrong with a pet, we can certainly listen to the symptoms and offer owners free advice. If the advice to a client is to see a vet immediately, rather than to attempt to treat a problem at home with an over-the-counter medicine, then the local veterinary practice can only benefit."

Manor, a 45-year-old family firm, bought an existing veterinary pharmacy called Vet-Medic eight years ago. It now sells a full range of animal medicines for everything from goldfish to iguanas in all its shops, as well as operating an online and mail order service.

"Worming or flea treatments for cats and dogs are now the third biggest category of over-the-counter sales in our shops and we can only see that figure growing," says Evans, who adds that more pets can now expect to receive proper treatment for their ailments.

"Although not many people are aware of it, veterinary pharmacy has been practised for centuries and it is something many of us are very comfortable with. All of our shops are happy to welcome cats, dogs, hamsters, budgies or any other pet through the doors and we have deliberately chosen the kind of flooring that can cope with them."

He adds: "It's true that we don't have a lot of products suitable for pet snakes, but their owners too have been known to come to us for advice. Ditto worried horse owners."

The OFT's relaxation has been welcomed by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain (RPSGB), which offers a certificate in companion animal healthcare or diploma in veterinary pharmacy. This covers issues such as healthy horses, bee-keeping and general pet nutrition and obesity.

For those pharmacists who want to learn while they work, many of the topics can be covered via distance learning. The RPSGB believes that far from seeing their members as rival businesses, vets are in a prime position to work together with pharmacists in ensuring that the health of Britain's growing pet community is maintained.

It says that its members' traditional counselling role can be used to advise owners on routine matters such as health, hygiene and pet travel, as well as on more serious issues such as zoonoses - diseases transmitted from animals to humans.

While prompt treatment of everyday problems such as pet parasites will be a vital service for those unwilling to make an appointment to see a vet, either because they can't afford it or because they don't think the problem is serious enough, the Society stresses that prompt referral to a vet when necessary will always be an important principle of veterinary pharmacy work.

Although the expanded role for pharmacy is clearly an important step for the industry - not least because animal health products are already worth an estimated £180m and the figure is growing fast - not all pharmacists will devote space to animals, says Rob Morris, a Northamptonshire-based independent community pharmacist who spent more than 25 years in industry developing medicines for farm animals.

"Building up a skills base in veterinary work from scratch will take at least four years. For most pharmacists the National Health Service prescriptions for human beings can account for 80 per cent of a pharmacy's business and will take precedence over private work with pets."

"If a pharmacy is short of space, and can't house pets or their medicine, then I can't see how it can build up a reputation for animal health."

He adds: "While it is a very good thing that the cost of routine treatments for companion animals will now go down, I fear that the fees to see a vet will rise accordingly to make up for it."

Morris believes that while pharmacists with large numbers of pets on their patch, or even a zoo, kennels or stables close by, would be well advised to take one of the RPSGB's veterinary qualifications, he expects a large proportion to share the wait-and-see attitude being adopted by large pharmacy chains such as Boots.

For those pharmacists who do decide to throw themselves into animal work though, the rewards, says Evans, can be enormous. "Leaving aside the enormous career opportunities for qualified veterinary pharmacists in teaching, industry or even the Government, the whole point of community pharmacy is that we're there to help and advise our local community six days a week without the need to make appointments."

"With so many of our customers relying on their pets for everyday companionship, extending our service to dogs, cats and budgies is really no different to treating any other members of the family."

DOWN ON THE FARM

"Farmers are more clued-up than ever before about the use of medicines in animal husbandry," says Rod Jones, an agricultural chemist from Hay-on-Wye, Herefordshire who supplies veterinary medicines to local farmers.

"There is always a need to strike a balance between throwing a bucketful of chemistry at a problem and not doing enough to solve it."

Occupying what he calls the "hinterland" between vets and doctors, Jones finds that many of the illnesses he treats in sheep, cattle and horses have implications for their human owners too.

"Fluke for example is a parasitic flatworm that burrows through the liver and can affect both sheep and cattle as well as humans. While a farmer's family can get it through eating wild watercress and will suffer no lasting ill-effects, for the animals that pick it up by grazing in wetlands, it can be fatal."

The opposite is the case with tapeworms passed on from dogs or sheep to humans, he says. "When I am called in to treat a puppy with tapeworm, I am always on the lookout for the chance of the puppy having been played with by a child and the awful possibility that it may migrate to the child's eye and cause blindness."

"My role as a veterinary pharmacist is to understand the animal and the human implications of a problem, particularly when so many of my clients live in close proximity to their animals."

Far from competing with local vets, Jones believes that the relationship between vets and veterinary pharmacists can only grow closer as the animal medicines market develops.

"If an animal has an acute problem, I will always recommend that a vet be called in, but for those farmers who will only ever call the vet when the sheep or cow is at death's door, I can at least offer advice."

Even though Jones' role precludes diagnosing, he says that he can help farmers "recognise" a disease that may have been diagnosed by a vet in the past and can often provide correct treatment.

Although he believes that commercial farms are often viewed negatively by the public, Jones sees their more poetic side.

"Many people move here because they are desperate to escape from city pressures and want to experience the good life and simply rear a few animals."

"Despite the image many people have of shed loads of animals being cooped up ready for slaughter, in this part of the world, animals are out on grass for most of the year. It can be a really idyllic job."

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