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Are Fleas Medications Safe? The FDA Urges Caution…But Not For Why You Think

| Published on August 13, 2020

Fleas and ticks can cause a lot of problems to your pets. Aside from the painful bites and itching, they carry diseases as well. And, for the dogs who are allergic, the bites can mean a vet visit and lots of treatment. Not to mention how awful a flea infestation is for the entire household.

But the drugs we use to prevent them can have even worse side effects, so is it worth it?

Concern over Side Effects

Taken by a groomer: Dog was totally matted and hair discolored down its back (I'd cut some out before deciding to take pic) owner swears its from Frontline. But is it user error?
Taken by a groomer: Dog was totally matted and hair discolored down its back (I’d cut some out before deciding to take pic) owner swears its from Frontline. But is it user error?

While you may only see ads for the “top names” in flea and tick control, there are actually hundreds of products both veterinarian prescribed and over the counter. Prevention comes in the following forms: collars, sprays, spot-ons, pills, dips, shampoos, and powders.

Every one of these products must be approved by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) or the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Dog owners should remember that all drugs have potentially side effects and that just like humans, some dogs are going to be more susceptible to these side effects.

Sherri Norman, Director of Companion Animal Marketing, Henry Schein Animal Health, the world’s largest distributor of pet products, says that proper dosing and the making sure you are using the correct product for the species (i.e. dog vs. cat) is paramount.

“Some flea products, particularly those that also prevent ticks contain permethrin which is hazardous to cats,” Norman explains. “The best products are those purchased from a veterinarian because you get not only the best products, but the right product for the right species and at the right strength and expert advice on administration/application of the product.”

While dog owners blame the medications for complications that arise from using their “unsafe” products, the FDA site reads as if the owners are largely to blame.

According to the FDA site, “EPA determined that some changes need to be made in how spot-on products are regulated, how companies report data on pet incidents, and how packages are labeled for cats, dogs, and size of animals to ensure the safety of these products. Based on reported incidents, EPA also concluded that many but not all pet incidents took place because the products were misused.”

Tips for Using Flea and Tick Products

The following are the tips the FDA shared to help pet owners properly use flea and tick treatments.

  • Read the label carefully before use. If you don’t understand the wording, ask your veterinarian or call the manufacturer. “Even if you’ve used the product many times before,” says Stohlman, “read the label because the directions or warnings may have changed.”
  • Follow the directions exactly. If the product is for dogs, don’t use it on cats or other pets. If the label says use weekly, don’t use it daily. If the product is for the house or yard, don’t put it directly on your pet.
  • Keep multiple pets separated after applying a product until it dries to prevent one animal from grooming another and ingesting a drug or pesticide.
  • Talk to your veterinarian before using a product on weak, old, medicated, sick, pregnant, or nursing pets, or on pets that have previously shown signs of sensitivity to flea or tick products.
  • Monitor your pet for side effects after applying the product, particularly when using the product on your pet for the first time.
  • If your pet experiences a bad reaction from a spot-on product, immediately bathe the pet with mild soap, rinse with large amounts of water, and call your veterinarian.
  • Call your veterinarian if your pet shows symptoms of illness after using a product. Symptoms of poisoning include poor appetite, depression, vomiting, diarrhea, or excessive salivation.
  • Do not apply a product to kittens or puppies unless the label specifically allows this treatment. Use flea combs to pick up fleas, flea eggs, and ticks on puppies and kittens that are too young for flea and tick products.
  • Wash your hands immediately with soap and water after applying a product, or use protective gloves while applying.
  • Store products away from food and out of children’s reach.

Source: FDA and CDC

Alternative to Flea and Tick Medications

If, after reading this, you are not convinced (as many are not) that the incidents involving the use of these prevents was mainly user error, you may be interested in noting there are a few homeopathic, drug-free flea and tick controls.

Herbal Remedies

  • Eucalyptus
  • Cedar Chips
  • Lemon Peel
  • Lavender
  • Tansy (also repels lice, flies, and mites)

Natural Products

The Only Natural Pet® company has several MADE IN THE USA, chemical-free products out to help repel fleas and ticks in your house and on your dog naturally:

They also have shampoos, supplements, tags, powders – just about anything you can think of when it comes to flea and tick control, all of which are made without chemicals.

About the Author

Based in Tustin, Calif., animal lover Kristina N. Lotz is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer – Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA) and works as a full time trainer. She also owns her own custom pet products company, A Fairytail House, where she makes personalized collars, leashes, beds, keepsake pillows and blankets, and anything else your imagine can think up. In her spare time, she trains and competes in herding, agility, obedience, rally, and conformation with her Shetland Sheepdogs. She smartly married a Veterinary Technician, who helps keep the fur kids happy and healthy, and provides a quick resource for articles.

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