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'Spot-on' flea control products: Is there cause for concern?

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With flea and tick season now underway, pet owners are once again looking for the best products to protect their pets from these uncomfortable pests.

Flea and tick control ranks high among pet owner priorities, and for good reason. Fleas and ticks are a significant cause of discomfort and illness among both dogs and cats. In addition, fleas and ticks can spread from pets to people and transmit disease. So, there is a real need for products that address this problem.

The pet products industry has responded to this need with a variety of over-the-counter flea and tick control compounds in addition to several products that are available only directly from veterinarians. Stroll the aisles of your local pet supply store and you’ll find a bewildering array of products for both cats and dogs.

The fur flies

Recently, concern over the safety of so-called “spot-on” flea and tick control products – which are applied directly to a pet’s skin -- has added to pet owners’ confusion and worry.

According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal ("Fur Flies Over Flea Treatments", May, 26, 2009) “an increasing number of pet owners are reporting what they believe to be harmful side effects from over-the-counter and prescription flea and tick treatments.”

In an April 16, 2009 News Release, the United States Environmental Protection Agency announced that the Agency “is intensifying its evaluation of spot-on pesticide products for flea and tick control due to recent increases in the number of reported incidents” involving these products. The release notes that the adverse reactions reported “range from mild effects such as skin irritation to more serious effects such as seizures and, in some cases, the death of pets.”

Manufacturers insist that their products are safe when used as directed.

So what gives? Is there really cause for concern? Are these products dangerous? And how should pet owners approach the problem of flea and tick control?

A specialist speaks

In a recent interview with WebVet, we put these questions -- and others -- to Nadine Znajda, DVM, a specialist in veterinary dermatology at Florida Veterinary Specialists in Tampa, FL.

Znajda believes that most of the “spot-on” over-the-counter flea and tick control products are safe and effective when used according to the manufacturers’ directions. However, she advises that the best approach to flea and tick control is to start with a visit to a veterinarian. Znajda explains that in addition to the over-the-counter products, “there are many wonderful products that are only available by prescription from a veterinarian. Some of these can be combined with medications to prevent heartworm disease in both dogs and cats.”

As to why there has apparently been an increase in reported adverse reactions to spot-on flea remedies, Znajda offers three likely causes:

  • For economic reasons, fewer pet owners are consulting with their veterinarians on a regular basis about flea control treatments and are using over-the-counter products incorrectly.
  • Some cat owners are using flea control products that are intended only for dogs.
  • In dual dog/cat households, cats that spend time in close contact with dogs that are treated with spot-on treatments may have significant “second-hand” exposure.

Specific suggestions

Znajda offers several specific suggestions:

  • If at all possible, bring your pet to your veterinarian for a complete examination. Your vet can give you the most up-to-date advice about all of the flea and tick control options available.
  • These “prescription-only” agents have different modes of action and administration. They also differ in their potential side effects and adverse reactions. Some are for dogs only; others are available for cats as well. They are not available over-the-counter. [WebVet does not endorse any particular product; discuss with your vet which, if any, of these products is appropriate and safe for your pet.]
  • If you choose to use one of the over-the-counter spot-on products, be sure to read the package insert carefully and use only as directed. The package insert will specify the species, age requirements and weight range of the animals the product is intended for.
  • The active ingredient in most spot-on products -- Permethrin -- can cause toxic reactions if too much is used. Look for a product with a lower concentration of Permethrin and see if it is effective before using a higher concentration product. 
  • Cats are especially sensitive to Permethrin and Znajda advises cat owners to avoid Permethrin products completely.
  • Keep in mind that there are no systemic (orally administered) tick control medications.
  • NEVER use a dog product on a cat.

A final word

It’s penny-wise but pound-foolish to take a do-it-yourself approach to flea and tick control. There is more to parasite control than just ticks and fleas and your veterinarian is the best source of advice on a comprehensive pest control program for your pet.


The expense of a visit to the vet will be far less than the expense of emergency treatment resulting from improper use of a flea or tick control product. Even more importantly, however, getting it right from the start may spare your pet a lot of misery!

 

Credit: Reviewed by Amy Attas, VMD
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