5 On Your Side

Used incorrectly, pets' flea medication 'can literally cause death'

Posted November 21, 2011
Updated November 22, 2011

— They are furry, loving members of the family, but dogs and cats are also the perfect mode of transportation for fleas and ticks. Millions of people rely on spot-on flea and tick treatments, such as Frontline and Advantage, which are easy and effective, but many pet owners have found that products like these can also be dangerous.

Sarah Biddle says she followed the directions to apply a store-bought treatment to her normally playful cat, Uno. Within hours, he was “under the bed and howling and crying and meowing,” she said.

“I thought I had poisoned him,” Biddle said. “I instantly knew that whatever I had done last night, or I had put on him, was making him sick.”

WRAL News did an online search and found multiple posts showing animals with similar reactions. Some side-effects include seizures, vomiting, lethargy, skin burns and death.

Dr. Audra Alley is a holistic veterinarian at Bowman Animal Clinic in Raleigh, where thousands of pet patients use the treatments. While the practice has seen few problems, Alley says the products do contain serious chemicals.

“The most common thing we see is hair-loss at the application site,” she said. “I do think we need to be aware that they are pesticides. They are not a benign class of drugs.”

In 2008, the Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates the treatments and logs complaints about problems, launched an investigation after receiving 48,000 reports about pet reactions to spot-on treatments. About 1,300 included very serious reactions or death. That’s out of about 270 million doses that were sold.

From 2007 to 2008, pet reactions to the medication increased 53 percent. That’s around the same time that the products, which used to be available only through veterinarians, became available online and in stores. The products also started coming from many new manufacturers and with some different ingredients.

Uno the cat Used incorrectly, pets' flea medication 'can literally cause death'

Manufacturers and many veterinary experts say that, while some of the reactions aren't explainable, most of the products are safe, when applied correctly. They also say that many of the adverse reactions involve mistakes, such as pet owners using the wrong type of product.

“If people mistakenly put a dog product on their cat, it can literally cause death,” Alley said.

Another mistake is incorrectly guessing a pet’s weight. Applying treatment made for an 18-pound cat to a cat that weighs 11 pounds could be toxic. Alley says pet owners need to be very careful about following directions and putting the medication where it’s supposed to go.

“It says ‘between the shoulder blades.’ How many people know exactly where the shoulder blades are? And if you go a little too far back, cats are little yogis, they can get around there and lick that stuff off pretty easily,” she said.

Watch Alley demonstrate how to apply flea and tick treatment:

Veterinarian shows how to apply flea and tick medication Veterinarian shows how to apply flea medication

Last month, the EPA reiterated that it is working to get manufacturers to offer a wider range of dosages relative to a pet's weight. For example, instead of 31 to 60 pounds, the range might be 31 to 40 pounds. The EPA also wants all packages to clearly state if they are for a cat or dog.

Alley says the risk of disease from fleas and ticks is significantly higher than the risk of reactions from the treatment. Pets can die from tick-carrying Lyme disease and flea reactions. Those pests can also be a health risk to humans.

Alley says alternative treatments, such as electromagnetic tags, flea paper and supplements, are not as effective or consistent as spot-on treatments. Beyond effectiveness, even natural products have health risks. Alley says garlic can cause anemia in pets, and brewer's yeast can cause intestinal problems.

As for Uno the cat, he's back to his old self. Biddle says she wants pet owners to realize the risks of spot-on flea and tick treatments.

“I just want people to be aware that they can be very dangerous and potentially deadly,” she said.


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  • cyrasiane Nov 28, 2011

    The Advantage I put on our Pomeranians in Florida in 2005 caused problems. The Advantage from my vet, following the dosing directions to the letter caused: 1) hair loss where drops were administered; 2) you could smell the chemical in dogs' urine/poo 7-10 days after application; 3) after 3 consecutive months using product, 5 of the 10 dogs we had started having seizures; 4) one of the healthy older Poms developed liver failure w/in 2 months AFTER discontined use of Advantage; 5) the latex paint on the table used to place the dogs to apply product got a drop of the Advantage on it, & the paint disintigrated away to bare wood. Instructions tell you to wear protective clothing (I wore latex gloves) and not get any of the product on you. If we should not get the product on US, then WHAT is it doing to our pets? If it's strictly a topical medication, WHY does their urine/poo smell of chemical 7-10 days afterwards? I stopped using it, retrained them to newspaper instead of going out.

  • alwayslovingu30 Nov 28, 2011

    pet armour from walmart does not work on cats at all.its cheaper then frontline an others but does not work.

  • burnhace Nov 28, 2011

    The real story here for me is that Frontline Plus(R) is no longer effective for many people. We too have found that it still works for ticks, but fleas are not affected. Our new cat suffered for three months this spring and summer with fleas. We suspected at first that it wasn't being absorbed underneath his fur because he is a Maine CXXX Cat and has unusual fur. We even tried administering twice a month rather than once a month, though the instructions clearly prohibit it. We flea-combed him at least once a day. Finally we tried Advantix(R) and the fleas dropped off within 24 hrs (dead) and didn't come back. There are no scientific reports of resistance to the active ingredient in Frontline(R) (i.e., fipronil) that I could find, but it is apparently a problem. Alternatively, the pesticide has not been properly stored by shippers/retailers and is degraded, or dosages/formulations have been altered by the manufacturer to reduced concentrations that are safer but now ineffective.

  • Ed Livesay Nov 25, 2011

    Yeah... something is up. We've used Frontline for years and it became ineffective. The vet told us to occasionally switch to Advantix which worked for a bit. This year, we can't get any of these products to work. It's not that the animals have somehow adapted as we're talking about different dogs. Makes one say "hmmm."

  • ritamccoy Nov 23, 2011

    I would like to add that my pets have always had good luck with Frontline and Advantix, but I once bought a brand from a farm supply store and when I put it on my dog, he yelled as if it burned him and ran from me. After that, he would never let me get near him if I had something in my hand. Stick with the name brands.

  • gc27312 Nov 23, 2011

    I'm glad WRAL posted this story. Please be careful with store bought flea medications. Last week my friend just lost her perfectly healthy but older cat a mere one day after applying store bought flea drops. My cat also has terrible reactions to store bought - obvious discomfort, shaking, etc.. I don't use them anymore - haven't for years. I have had good luck with Revolution drops which you can get from the vet. After applying the cat does not even react.

  • lec0257 Nov 23, 2011

    timbo10.0 I hope you never have pets if that is the way you feel. They are living just like you.

  • Scubagirl Nov 23, 2011

    "@thefensk, we're noticing that Frontline seems not as effective lately too! What's going on? Not 1 dog has had fleas in this house in 40 years, all of a sudden in the last 6 weeks, they continue to show up on the dogs every 10 days. Frontline, baths, Adams spray, Adams carpet spray...nothing is keeping them away. Anyone else having problems lately, esp. in North Raleigh?"

    I live in N Raleigh and have had fleas this year for the first time in >10 yrs. Have spoken w/ several vets lately and they say that many people have been saying the same thing.

    Borax on your floors, pet bedding, carpet etc is a huge help, but DO NOT PUT BORAX ON PETS!!!

  • juliestoneham Nov 23, 2011

    unfortunately, fleas become immune to frontline.

  • timbo10.0 Nov 22, 2011

    It's just a cat. There's more in the pound.